I’m back in London. It’s a boring, but essential, story involving a plumbing emergency and some missing internet banking details.
My first 24 hours back in the capital were discombobulating. (I’ve been waiting years for a suitable sentence to use that word in. Turns out it took a global pandemic.)
For space-short, green-starved Londoners, social distancing is more of an aspiration than a way of life. But it isn’t living and walking in such close proximity to other humans that’s confused me. It is the total lack of change.
In Devon, the landscape was in a constant state of flux. It gently transformed with every rising and setting of the sun; it pulsed with life both long and short. It had completely changed by the time I had to leave, nine weeks after arriving.
In London, everything was precisely how I’d left it. It is, I’ve realised, a season-less city. Leaves are swept up as soon as they hit the pavement; flowerbeds are maintained and manicured year-round and anything that cannot survive the harsh, urban conditions is quickly replaced (I’m still talking about plants here, I think…) The London I love — the galleries and restaurants, the constant state of anticipation — doesn’t exist right now. And in this absence of culture, London’s shortcomings are laid bare.
There are, of course, two sides to every story and upsides aplenty. On Sunday, central London was empty and mine for the taking. I wandered through sun-dappled streets, admiring, for the first time the factory-style casement windows in Soho and the handsome dark brick facades in Fitzrovia. Outside a pretty home, on a street behind Hyde Park I’d never imagined was home to anything but offices, a Voss’s laburnum left untended (a rare exception) to bloom in all it’s sunshine glory and trail yellow petals across the pavement like confetti. Its only companion a proud-looking 1960’s Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow.
I can tell you where all the other cars are: taking part in a great exodus from city to countryside. I journeyed eastwards just before the Government’s relaxation of lockdown rules, in a small peloton all terrified to drive above 70mph or overtake one another.
We needn’t have worried. Not because there weren’t plenty of police around (there were) but because they were too busy being distracted by the masses travelling in the opposite direction — towards the sea, and freedom.
I’ve no doubt many of them had good reason to be on the A303. Others, not so much — particularly not the couple with a giant canoe on their roof rack. I only wish I could have heard what they said when trying to explain that one away to the officers of the law…
Did you know that a wineglass floats? Even when it’s full of red wine? And that after two minutes of bobbing around your knees, said wine will be at perfect drinking temperature? It’s little revelations like these that can only take place in the bath, my amphitheatre of emotion.
The bath is good. It’s a good place that I have neglected, frankly, for too long. ‘Who has the time for a bath?’ I would say to myself, before a nasty little virus annihilated what I used to call a ‘social life’. I’m a fool. A moron. The bath is king. Can I fit in the bath? Not totally. Is this relevant to the story? Not at all.
Time is a luxury, we are told, and if that’s true, then I’m drowning in it. I have the time to write this column. I have the time to weed the garden. I have the time to finally watch Breaking Bad (will I watch Breaking Bad? No. But I could).
As the red wine bobs, I have the time to sit in the bath and stop and think.
In a gingerbread world, is a man made of house, or is the house made of man?
If everyone, everywhere experiences something, do any of us experience anything at all?
Why are some horses called grey when they are clearly white?
It feels like we’re constantly forced to think of the positives. ‘Think of the positives!’ howls Doris next door, barely audible over the sound of her smashing two pans together to prove that it is she who cares about the NHS the most. ‘Think of the positives!’ your liver and bank balance cry out in unison, as the pubs and clubs remain shuttered. Okay, okay! Please, just put the Le Creuset down Doris.
Living in London is a busy life, of constant rushing and panic and missed trains and doors closing just as you reach them and, sorry, what? This beer costs how much?
In a way, it’s nice not to worry about it anymore. I feel relief. The endless panic of living in a city such as this may feel inescapable, but it’s of our own creation. Stop, breathe, take a bath.
I have time, and that is a positive. What is more positive, however, is that I now know that I always had time. Unless you want to do a virtual quiz. Then, sorry, I’m busy. Probably in the bath.