Trying to perfect my lizard eyes at the mask-less. Occasionally it works and the offender will reach into a pocket or bag for their face diaper but mainly all it elicits is an embarrassed head turn. On my first train ride to London for over a year, just at the start of summer this year. Walking out into a cold sun at Euston station, crossing the road and launching into what is normally tourist infested concrete, there’s a Sunday afternoon emptiness. Of course, Sundays in many towns and cities are busy shopping days, but, traditionally in certain parts of London such as the City and Marylebone, the streets are suddenly clear and public doors are locked as Jesus’s dad looks down with approval. It’s not a Sunday today but that’s just one of the many subtle, disorientating side effects of invisible viruses. Like a war but there’s no war to be seen. Until.
Walking due south on a mission to deliver a book to the newly re-opened Society of Authors, I feel almost jaunty. Until I reach Tavistock Square and stop by a building I’ve often passed but never noticed, the British Medical Association building, designed by Edwin Lutyens, a gorgeous and understated architectural manifestation of the medical ego, the headquarters for UK doctors, who need to be both humble and arrogant, the former in order to deliver babies, the latter to save lives. It’s perfect. So I stop on this born-again day to appreciate and study the courtyard. There’s a flag on top of the main building, flying at half-mast. I can guess why but stop in at the reception to ask. The security guy shows he is more than invested in his job and the moment, describing in a moving way that the flag is for dead doctors and medical staff (1,500 at that point), those who have fallen in the past year and a bit. I walk away thinking, why aren’t all the flags everywhere flying at half-mast and that this is emblematic of the country’s attitude to the non-war. Tens of thousands dead, including the medical staff, the Spitfire pilots, along with the regular army of shop workers and bus drivers. The only flag honouring them all is hidden away in Bloomsbury.
Walking on, most hotels closed. I get to Bedford Square and make my delivery, realising that thousands have been making inter-city deliveries and this is my only one. Then I walk into the West End.
Soho is busier but not normal. On most days it is compressed humanity; you can skip from example to example in a step or two. Normally, here’s a someone Jonesing desperately for whatever chemical, here’s a someone computing in their mind the advance on the deal and what it will buy them, just two steps later. Not today. There are some tourists who look like they may have got left behind. French people doing the reverse-Dunkirk, marooned on the beaches of Trafalgar Square’s bleached concrete, escaping six months of hotel isolation. There’s an outside cinema set up in front of the Portrait Gallery, advertising some super-feel good selections to watch in the newly open air, once darkness falls. I feel disappointed on behalf of the French families who can’t hang out by the fountains and wonder whether Trafalgar Square was boarded up during the war, the proper war. It is boarded up now, for the most digitally correct, 21st century reasons. Entry free but you have to book online.
My friend Lauren, who is also a singer known as Law Holt, is a medical nurse. She has worked the Covid wards and now works A&E. We haven’t sung together for a long time. She can’t get her head out of the medical space. The last time we wrote songs, two of them specifically dealt with her experiences. Words that are almost breathlessly angry, inspiring sadness that never translates through the media, through the news. Just desperate human experience. My guess is that, it wouldn’t, couldn’t work as some kind of therapy. Some things won’t go away, no matter how much basket weaving you do.
As I haven’t been back to that part of London since I don’t know where the flag is on the pole on the roof of the BMA building right now. If it’s back up and flying proudly as everyone is ‘getting over it’. How long did the flags fly half mast for after previous wars? Will there be statues? Will King Charles stand on a balcony with PM Fishy Sunak to wave V signs at the grateful flocks? How long will it take to get the boys home and when will rationing end? Of course, it’s not the same. This bewildering situation. For a start, the war’s up and running again, as if the Russians decided not to stop at Selmsdorf and pressed on through Belgium, right up to the channel, the Omicron Division. Perhaps Orwell should have used a different metaphor for his bleak future world: an invisible cluster of germs, sliding up our nostrils forever.
Somehow, that doesn’t seem to be the important thing. Life went on, during war time, it always did. And, when it didn’t at Nagasaki, the Warsaw ghetto and other cities, life went on, nearby. There was always someone, somewhere, to lower the flag and concentrate for a moment, or the rest of their lives, on the sheer luck of survival and to be thankful for a few years more.