Thoughts on locked-down London

I came upon this wonderful film today.

The walker is taking a walk I’ve done many times, from Trafalgar Square bus stop, round Canada House, across the Square, up Charing Cross Road, across to Leicester Square, out past the Chinese gate, past the Swiss thing, through Piccadilly Circus and up Regent Street.

But when I make this walk, I am jostled by tourists and shoppers. I’m usually trying to get from one place to another. And although I sense the buildings, see their shapes out of the corner of my eye, I’m rarely able to take a good look. Stop on the pavement and you’re a target; stop in the road and you’re flattened.

The film was made the day before lock down, so that would be 22 March.

Some would, I’m sure, describe this filmed walk as eerie, or creepy (a word that goes back to Victorian times, it turns out). Some might say it’s something out of science fiction, or note how clean the air is without so many vehicles, or even (as the filmmaker does) call it “empty”.

To a historian, and quite possibly the social scientist, the only thing that’s missing is modern-day crowds. All the history is there, in the buildings themselves. You can actually see the base of the National Gallery without the tall Yoda actor in front of it, the whole front of the Cafe Royal, the way the shops on Regent Street hug the corners. Normally, the bottoms of the buildings, where they meet the pavement, can’t be seen at all. Outdoor shop displays, homeless people, piles of rubbish bags outside everywhere usually prevent that. Here the whole building design can be viewed.

The dearth of people also makes it possible to see the statues.  The lions at the base of Nelson’s Column are marvelously bereft of climbers. There’s the statue of Edith Clavell on Charing Cross Road, normally hard to get to between the close traffic on either side and the inevitable political campaigners in front of her.  Piccadilly Circus is usually blocked by people taking pictures of each other, and of themselves. And I saw something new: the Paddington Bear statue in Leicester Square (I’m there a lot, because that’s where the cut-price ticket booth is). I had to look that one up to find they recently installed movie-themed statues I can see next time. Maybe.

Even the rubbish bins look quite fashionable without the actual rubbish overflowing out of them.

You can also see the security measures: the steel bollards, the heavy planter boxes, the metal fencing around the square, the measures put in place to make it more difficult for someone to run a vehicle into a group of people. And like London itself, the video is unplanned, accompanied by the soundtrack of a Jesus preacher in Piccadilly Circus. It leant the whole thing a sort of Assassin’s Creed tone. I kept expecting Ezio to go walking in front of me, bumping into pedestrians and rattling armor.

Please understand, I am not in any way downplaying the horror of the pandemic, or the extraordinary cost in lost trade and jobs. But it’s so rare to rejoice in the cleanliness and design of the city. One usually doesn’t get that chance.

1 comment to Thoughts on locked-down London

  • jmm

    I don’t find it eerie or creepy at all, but restful. You get a sense of London’s beauty and spaciousness that’s normally lost in the mobs of shrieking inebriated tourists (Leicester Square)and grim-faced commuters hustling to work (everywhere else.)