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London after lockdown

April 20, 2021

Last Friday marked our first foray into the world since the end of Lockdown 3. When I say “our”, I mean as a couple. I don’t include my disastrous forays on to the golf course which reminded me not only of my age but how easily body and mind lose coordination and muscle memory in a few short months.

The outing in question was to a lunch date in London, where we met our elder daughter, her husband-to-be and his parents at a posh Chinese restaurant in Pimlico. The main topics of conversation were matters matrimonial. The offspring are due to be married in July at a civil ceremony that will be mercifully free of media stars, judges and assorted duchesses, archdukes and margraves.

The restaurant offered one option only: an endless tasting menu with little dishes worthy of its two Michelin stars. The price was eye-watering, as was the wine bill. One bottle would have paid for a crate of plonk from Tesco. But hey, think of all the money we’ve saved through not eating out during the lockdown months.

The restaurant had built a cabin on the pavement, which felt as much indoors as indoors. There were three tables, each kitted out for the magic six guests. COVID has also led to a strange ritual, wherein you can eat without masks in the outdoor indoors, but should you step into the indoor indoors to go to the loo, you have to mask up. Strange really, because you would have thought that you had a far greater chance breathing airborne virus particles in the company of the braying occupants of the next table than within the restaurant itself, which was free of humans apart from the chef lurking in the shadows.

One thing hadn’t changed since pre-lockdown. A group of four, who represented a quarter of the restaurant’s afternoon turnover, failed to turn up, despite receiving a text and phone call the day before asking them if they were definitely coming. No wonder the price was so high, We were paying for the no-shows.

After three hours of delicious bits and pieces, interspersed with a fascinating commentary on the derivation of the dishes from the waiter, who comes from Tibet, we broke up to go our separate ways. Daughter to a wedding dress fitting, in-laws to their place round the corner and us to our home in deepest Surrey. As we stepped out onto the street, two large women beggars were engaged in a shift change on the payment opposite. Deliveroo cyclists were zipping back and forth. Polyglot London was in full flow, with barely a facemask in sight. It was as if the pandemic was a bad dream.

But before we could return to our suburban womb, we had to endure a real nightmare, utterly at odds with the image of the depopulated lockdown city in which street pigeons were the only sign of life. Our route home took us through Chelsea. It took an hour and a half of crawling through traffic to arrive at Putney Bridge, a distance of about three miles. Very few trucks, mainly cars and the occasional bus. Barring a few road works, there seemed no reason why so many people seemed to be heading in the same direction. Were they all heading out to the country? Were they afraid to take public transport? Whatever the cause, every alternative route showed red on our phone satnav. There was no way out.

The only upside was that we had the time to observe the natives as they sensibly used the pavements to get to where they wanted to go. Barely a soul over forty to be seen. You would think that anyone over that age had been locked up or had died off. Strollers and joggers, the lovers and the lonely. That part of London, full of apartments and small houses, is a game reserve for the young, the cool and the hopeful, for whom London is the greatest city in Europe. Like young butterflies with glistening wings, they’ve started to emerge into the post-lockdown sunshine.

Further on, into Putney, we passed a pub next to the Common, with tables laid out over ground normally occupied by middle-aged ladies and their dogs. The rule of six appeared to be in abeyance. More like the rule of sixty, as crowds of drinkers spread out over the open ground.

South-West London is hardly representative of the sprawling city that you see on the flightpath to Heathrow Airport. The rest of it ranges from grim to glorious, populated with people for whom there is no opportunity to escape into the clear air of the country, whose lives are not on a trajectory towards gracious living away from grubbiness and knife crime. I spent a brief period living in what estate agents grandly called West Kensington, but which was actually a shared terraced house in Fulham. It was fun enough, but then I escaped to Saudi Arabia. I never returned. I don’t regret it.

London is fine to visit, but since I’m not an oligarch with zillions to spend on a gracious residence in Hampstead, Kensington or Notting Hill, the mix is a bit rich for me. I prefer the suburban backwaters, where nothing ever happens. Until, that is, the emergence of the Phantom Tree-Slayer. For that story, you’ll have to go to the next post, which follows shortly.

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