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Miracle Of The Plague Year

London Lockdown

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I have stood in Trafalgar Square with a solitary pigeon as a man in a yellow high-vis jacket, a Harris Hawk on his arm, patrolled between the sparkling fountains, scaring away birds from non-existent tourists. The sun burned down on the bone-white buildings from a sky so blue it seemed London had swapped its sky with that of Arizona or New Mexico. Later, the Met Office would confirm that the Spring of 2020, with 626.2 hours of sunshine, was the sunniest and driest ever recorded, sunnier than all but three British summers.

‘Lockdown’ was imposed by the UK government on 23 March 2020 to slow the spread of Covid-19. But I never expected that one reality would be supplanted so swiftly and so completely by another. On my last day at work, a line of a song popped into my head from Doctor Doolittle, a musical I had seen at the cinema, aged ten, and not recalled since: ‘After today, nothing will be the same again.’ The words seemed a bit melodramatic at the time. But now, with London’s nine million inhabitants playing a city-wide game of hide-and-seek, I am not so sure.

Karen, my wife, who is an NHS nurse, continues to go to work and I continue to work from home, so in some ways life remains normal. But it is an abnormal normality. We live in the centre of London, which has metamorphosed into the set of Shaun of the Dead (without the zombies). On my ‘daily exercise’, sometimes with Karen, sometimes on my own, I wander the streets of the post-apocalyptic city.

In Covent Garden, my wife walks down an empty King Street some distance ahead of me. The light is fading and she is silhouetted against the setting sun. It strikes me suddenly that this was what it must have been like just after an air raid, in the desolate silence after the bombers left and before people emerged from their underground shelters. Peter Ackroyd is a great one for imagining London as a living organism, accreting skins one on another, with even the deepest layers liable to exposure at any moment by some chance event. The truth of this I witnessed years ago in Wardrobe Court, a secret place between Blackfriars and St Paul’s Cathedral, where the King kept his wardrobe before the Great Fire. Building work had exposed one of Ackroyd’s buried skins and there, on a wall, flapping in the wind, aglow with the light of another day, was a poster advertising the coronation of George V on 22 June 1911.

In Piccadilly Circus it is like Piccadilly Circus because, well, how can it not be? However, Piccadilly Circus is as empty as the Atacama Desert. On the towering advertising screen, shimmering images of Coca Cola and Samsung tablets have been replaced by: ‘LONDON HEROES: LONDON THANKS YOU.’ Few are in any doubt now who are society’s essential workers, from nurses, doctors and paramedics to postmen, dustmen and shop assistants (though those in power will ‘clap for carers’ and later vote against a pay rise for nurses, who are earning 7.4% less in real terms than they did in 2010). In Tesco’s, at the check-out, I come over suddenly emotional and tell the young woman how grateful I am for what she does. ‘Oh, thank you. It means a lot,’ she says. ‘The only time I get out now is to come here to work.’

In Regents Street, I stand on a traffic island and see not a single person or vehicle in either direction along the sweeping curve of the street. Wasn’t there once floated the idea of a neutron bomb that would kill all the people but leave all the buildings intact? Perhaps someone has dropped one? But, no, thankfully, a bus appears. These days they pass either empty or with a single passenger in a window, as far from the driver as possible. One of the highest death rates has been experienced by bus drivers, confined every day with infectious people in their metal boxes. Occasionally, footsore from all our walking, we flag one down. The buses, like taxis, ferry us alone around the vehicle-less streets of the evacuated city and we squirm uncomfortably at the announcement on intermittent repeat: ‘You should only be on this bus if you are a key worker or this is an emergency. To everyone else, please stay at home, do not travel and save lives.’

At Oxford Circus, the traffic lights cycle pointlessly though red, amber and green — as superfluous as a lollypop lady in the school holidays. Oxford Street is lined by sepulchral shops, some with their windows boarded up, others emptied of stock, and some frozen in an eternal Easter, with brightly painted eggs and chicks and bunnies gathering dust. And Easter is not the only festival frozen in time. In China Town, the jaunty red lanterns, strung in their profusion across Gerrard Street and Wardour Street, swing in the breeze against the azure sky, like revellers who have stayed until long after the last party-goer has gone. Chinese New Year – the Year of the Rat – was on 25 January. Another time. Another universe.

At Paddington Station, the concourse, as shiny-white as a skating rink, is dotted with a small group of rail staff, standing around listlessly as ghost trains slide in and out. Beyond, in Praed Street, James, a Geordie with a dirty red blanket around his shoulders, asks: ‘Can you get me a kebab and drink?’ Most of the homeless have vanished magically from the streets — a problem politicians have always maintained is very hard to solve but that has been solved overnight. Those, like James, who remain outdoors, look shell-shocked and scared. While he tells Karen how hard it is with so few passers-by to ask for money and so few places to spend that money, I shout back from the counter of the only open takeaway: ‘Any sauce on that kebab?’ We walk with him and say goodbye at his begging pitch outside St Mary’s Hospital beneath a giant graffiti message: ‘God bless the NHS!’

With no public toilets or cafés or department stores open, our roaming is limited by our bladders and our sore feet. The flipside is that, without the distraction of shops and people and traffic, the slow-motion metropolis reveals things overlooked at normal speed. On the Embankment, between Waterloo and Blackfriars Bridge, we come across an old red phone box, as mysterious as a Banksy, its panes replaced with stained glass of a knight in shining armour. Near St James’ Palace, on a wall of an alley, a plaque marks the site of the Texas Embassy. You read that correctly. Between 1836 and 1845, Texas was a fully-fledged country. It is why today Texans proudly call theirs ‘the Lone Star State’.

But it is not just the sights of London that are transformed. It no longer smells of dust and car exhaust, pollution that catches in your throat and makes your eyes sting. The sounds have changed too. In Hyde Park, there is no background drone of traffic, no planes heading for Heathrow flying over every minute. The swish and rustle and susurration of leaves can be heard, the intermittent rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker. And everywhere there are crows, no longer able to take advantage of the street larder of discarded chips and half-eaten burgers. They crowd the footpaths, menacing passersby like gangs of flick-knife-wielding teenagers, evoking the nightmare of Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Not six months ago, on this very spot, there were roller coasters and ice rinks and bratwurst stalls. At the ‘Winter Wonderland’, I blew on cinnamon dusted churros from a paper cone while listening to a German rock band playing on the roof of a bar in an open-air beer hall. All that noise, all that madness, seems like a dream now. I mourn for what has gone but also what might have been. On Sunday 26 April, on a gloriously sunny day, Karen and I stand in The Mall at the finish line of the 2020 London Marathon. Apart from a few passing cyclists, we are the only people here.

In London’s great plague of 1665, the dread of contamination was so great that, in Cambridge, 55 miles to the northeast, the university was closed and a 22-year-old man, unknown, unremarkable, made the trek by foot, by horse-drawn cart, back to his family farm in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire. There, in lockdown, Isaac Newton discovered the universal law of gravity and changed the face of science. This miracle of the plague year has particular resonance with me as a science writer. But miracles come in all shapes and sizes. And, although I have lived in London most of my life, in the Spring of 2020 I have been privileged to see the city of my birth as I have never seen it before and may never see it again. That, for me, is the miracle of the plague year.

Marcus Chown is an award-winning writer and broadcaster. Formerly a radio astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, his books include The Ascent of Gravity, Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You; and Felicity Frobisher and the Three-Headed Aldebaran Dust Devil.

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