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Lockdown London

The statue of poet Betjeman stands alone in a deserted railway station
Sir John Betjeman stands alone at St. Pancras International station

This is an excerpt from the script I wrote for an edition of The London Podcast which I produce and present. You can hear the full show here. Economist, broadcaster and The Times columnist Simon French has said of it, “Adrian has a great rhythm to his podcast. London Lockdown blended just the right amounts of informed opinion, high quality content and engaging style.”

Imagine largely empty London streets, even in the so-called rush hour. Big Ben’s been silenced till next year anyway, but there are few people around to miss it. Shaftesbury Avenue — at the heart of  normally bustling Theatreland — virtually deserted. And many moments when there’s no traffic on Westminster Bridge — or just a solitary bus. It sounds a lot like scenes from the disaster movie 28 Days Later — but I suppose that’s not so surprising since Danny Boyle’s film centres on a virus wreaking havoc with normal life.

My descriptions of a drastically quieter London are, as I speak, the new normal. So you don’t have to imagine them at all — they’re reality. But not far from the quiet streets is the suffering that comes with this corona virus — a real deadly threat, not a fictional plot twist. Not far from Westminster Bridge, which features in the movie, is one of London’s top teaching hospitals, St Thomas’s. There people are literally, tragically fighting for their next breath. Two weeks ago one of their number was the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. By his own admission his life was saved by St Thomas’s staff. And his brush with death took place on the other side of the River Thames, from where his voice normally booms out in the House of Commons. If he could be struck down, then it seemed anyone could. Our thoughts are with everyone struggling with Covid-19 at the moment and all those who’ve lost those they care about to the illness.

I’m actually locked out of London myself in an ironic twist of fate for the producer of something called The London Podcast! I’m speaking to you from my home in Kent. If you’re listening from outside the UK, that’s a county on the south east side of London. Actually, because part of my freelance work is in public service broadcasting, I’m classed as a key worker. That means I could go to BBC Broadcasting House in the West End, where I work in radio production, if I had to. In practice, though, the corporation has helped its staff to work from home, where possible. I’ve spent weeks recently, working for the BBC from the glamour of my paint-free kitchen table. I actually feel one of the lucky ones. Your life may have been much more disrupted by the pandemic, whether you’re juggling childcare with working from home, or being cut off from relatives, and struggling with housework and shopping. Or perhaps you’re living — or working — in a care home, concerned that care for you hasn’t been as forthcoming as it should have been. As someone said in a video conference call the other day — and haven’t we had our share, or over-share of those recently! — we’re not all in the same boat. Some people are, figuratively, crammed with loads of others into dinghies which are taking on water, buffeted by giant waves. Others sunbathe lazily on top of their 80-foot yachts in well-appointed marinas. As far as London goes, there’s a world of difference between being locked down in a luxury Georgian house in Belgravia, and being crow-barred into a crowded flat in a high-rise block in a less affluent part of the city. But affluence — or lack of, is now a shaky concept with none of us quite knowing what the post-virus world will look like — in London, or anywhere else.

When I was at primary school, one of my form teachers gave me what was even then a very old book — from 1942 — called How to Build a New World. It was by the journalist and writer Cecil Hunt, with illustrations from the cartoonist Heath Robinson. Actually, it was probably the other way round — the words designed to fit round the humorous pictures. The book looks forward to a post-war world and envisages a better Britain — or Heath Robinson’s vision of a better Britain. One section I remember floated the idea of a well-paid professional living next door to someone in a more working-class occupation. That never quite happened — perhaps it never was going to happen in class-conscious Britain. And this is where I’m torn between my inner sceptic, or even at times cynic who says society will just go back to its old exploitative habits as soon as it can — and my more upbeat side that believes in the old maxim ‘never let a crisis go to waste’. Talk is cheap — but so is applause. It’s one thing for us to ‘clap for carers’ as many are currently doing every Thursday evening at 8, but if cleaners, care workers and nurses are so important and so worthy of applause — to say nothing of lorry drivers, supermarket shelf-stackers and warehouse workers — why are so many so poorly paid? And what’s more important, putting our hands together and banging pots and pans, or providing personal protection equipment — or PPE — and a clear virus testing strategy firstly for carers, and then other people who need such things? The government found an emergency £3m quickly for homeless people nationwide to help with Covid-19 prevention and management. I don’t have a problem with that. But we’re not long out of a period of austerity when we were told we had to drastically limit public spending as there were no magic money trees. How come the millions, billions and trillions are suddenly there now? Of course they have to be, if we’re to avoid a 1930s-style Great Depression. But austerity was supposedly dropped last year before the pandemic hit — so what was the point of it, especially as we know governments can borrow when they want to?

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