A Month in Lockdown London

A month in Lockdown London

Early morning walkers are wrapped up warmly against the nipping wind that dances below the sun and tosses infrequent April showers across the country. The warm winter has brought green aphids out to suck on my roses. Every morning I brush them off and say thank you to the ants who are trying to devour them as quickly as they appear.

Walking past our local supermarket, the wind added to the chill of watching the long line of one-person one-cart each distanced apart, shuffling along the wall around to the waiting guard at the store’s entrance. It still feels too dangerous to shop there and not all right to ask someone to go for us. So we stay close to home shopping in the village and getting used to doing without the simplest things. It has been two weeks since I saw Philadelphia creme cheese in the dairy cooler. This week there is no mayonnaise and I pluck the last bag of risotto rice from the shelf.

Listening to the daily news bulletins from the government it is clear that they are not ‘telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.’

Health care workers, transport, postal, delivery and essential service personnel are becoming increasingly distrustful of, and frustrated by, the government. There are no state governors here to overturn and bring clarity to the federal shambles. The major of London, Sadiq Khan, the son of a bus driver, needs union pressure to catch up, trying to make all transport workers safer and promote the use of face masks for public places where the correct social distancing cannot be kept. His frustration is palpable on the news clips where he is seen. Since before the weekend a shipment from Turkey of Personal Protection Equipment for medical personnel had been promised. Today we learn that it was only officially asked for on Sunday! and is now due (again) to arrive today. Turkey – the country once demonized to help win the Brexit vote.

Beech Tree in the Wilderness of Regent’s Park

This is week four of our London shelter in place and the government has decreed at least three more weeks. But over this weekend with the Spring sun shining and the air warm, there was a casual feeling from people that this will not affect them. We walked through a wilderness area of Regent’s Park, where couples and families were picnicking under the trees, hanging out where old London tramps like to make their camps. Impromptu soccer games were played, though the goal posts and nets are all put to one side of the pitches. Hardly anyone was wearing masks but we were. The last of our table napkins have been turned into masks. A bag on the front door holds more fresh napkins from friends. They are waiting, cocooned like caterpillars to metamorphose into white butterfly masks.

From Table napkins to Face masks Photo by WSM

Mr Habtu works for Addison Lee the car hire firm. His hours are rough and spontaneous and he is still working. Who are the people who need his services? He has a wife and three growing boys to support. Every time I see him drive away I worry more than a little and yet am grateful for him that he has a job, is able to work and provide for his family.

This morning another book arrived through the letter box. ‘The Great Influenza’. Written by John M. Barry published in 2004 and picked up as one of the three books by G.W. Bush as a vacation read in 2005.

On opening it up I am immediately caught and it looks like Thomas Cromwell’s death in ‘The Mirror and the Light’ may have to wait a little longer. Glancing through The Great Influenza I am stopped by the end. Though one is not supposed to quote from books the two concluding paragraphs bear repeating at this moment in time.

“Those in Authority must retain the public’s trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one. Lincoln said that first and best. A leader must make whatever horror exists concrete. Only then will people be able to break it apart.”

And there is hope in the world as we read of Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand managing her country through this crisis followed by the delicious news that the governments of Poland and Denmark are refusing to give financial aid to companies that are registered off shore.

Primrose Hill is embraced on three sides by The Regent’s Park, the Canal and then the railway heading away from the city center. Walking home through the park we paused on the bridge over the canal. In these last few weeks the canal water has become so clear that the shallow bottom was visible. The sunlight was strong and sparkled through the trees while the ducks flew in pairs along its path. Such is the stillness of the air that for the first time in twenty years we can hear the trains clatter quietly by – leaving us all behind.

The has been A Letter from A. Broad. Written and read for you by Muriel Murch.

Week Two of UK Lockdown

And it continues. We listen to the wireless almost hourly for news and watch the BBC ten p.m. evening broadcasts each night for updates on the UK Corona virus figures. And with such intense scrutiny it is clear that something is happening at ‘Auntie’. Over the last two years the BBC has seen budget cuts of up to 80 million pounds. This has caused the loss of 450 jobs from its news and story departments. Those BBC executives who still have their jobs warn that the corporation is facing an unprecedented threat to its future. The National Union of Journalists has said the BBC was facing an “existential threat”, while the sharing of radio bulletins across the BBC will result in further job losses. Newsnight, a nightly, popular political program will lose a dozen personal, production of its in-depth films will be halved, and its investigative journalism diminished.

There is also an effort to reduce the number of on-screen news presenters, which brings up the question of where is Huw Edwards, the main BBC News anchor? Even beloved Clive Myrie is rarely seen. The news presentation team is now almost entirely women and that raises another question of pay scale equality.  Commenting on changes due to the Corona Virus situation a memo reads… “We’ve tightened hygiene and safety measures. Our presenters are now doing their own make-up.” And it shows.

On Friday Sir Keir Starmer was elected the new Labour Party leader. He gives his speech trying to be as passionate as he can, (not his strongest suit) and with the transmission through one microphone to another and then to the airwaves his words loose a certain panache. Thankfully his somewhat swept hair will be a change for the cartoonists who are getting a little bored by Boris’s haystack haircut. But we wish Starmer luck with uniting the Labour party and in the parliamentary collaboration with the conservatives that must come at this time. 

For my allotted daily exercise I alternate between riding a rental bike and walking in Regent’s Park. A four mile cycle around the outer circle is pretty good. I am alone and not so nervous as there is less traffic and the car drivers and fast bikers now travel with a little more consideration. At the North West corner of the park sits Grove House, the first of the six gated, fenced and locked villas built by Quinlan Terry between 1988 and 2004. All of them are owned by one Sultan or another to be close to the mosque, while in town. Before Grove House there is a small stretch of parkland. The daffodils have begun to fade here and an old elm tree lies fallen on its side. A pair of lovers, wrapped in their winter scarves are standing close. She is hesitant but he pulls her towards him. He wants to feel her body through the rough wool of their heavy coats. I can’t help but smile as I see them. He, ever watchful, catches my eye and with an almost apologetic grin asks that I understand. And I do.   

It is a sunny Saturday morning but I am missing lemons and cumin. Risking the disapproval of our neighbors, I walk to Shepherd’s Market in the village. Regent’s Park Road would normally be bustling with activity but this Saturday is different. There are only a few people out on the street and those that are zig-zag across the road to keep at a distance. Two young people almost take themselves off of the pavement as they pass close to me and we smile. I can’t tell if they are being considerate of me or careful of themselves. At the market, a notice reads that only one customer is allowed to enter the shop as another one leaves. I stand behind a middle-aged man who is struggling to be patient with the older gentleman balancing a cane and two bags of groceries while climbing into his motor buggy. There is another queue outside of the butcher’s shop with people standing a discrete distance from each other. They are silent. There is no chatting for that would necessitate people leaning closer to each other.

It has been over a week since I was in the chemist’s shop. Another older man is standing outside the door, gathering himself as he slowly leans on his cane to walk home. Inside the chemist’s there is now a big wood framed plastic partition across the counter which it is clear will stay long after the virus leaves. I wonder about these solitary men, for now that the pubs are closed they have no place to belong, alone within the company of others. In London it is easy to half-close your eyes and see Hogarth’s England with all of humanities foibles etched on our faces. The experts say we are still two to three weeks from the peak of this virus. Tonight on the television and radios around the country the Queen will speak to the nation, gathering us all to a greater unity of purpose. And within the silence of the street maybe there is hope as we listen to the robin calling out for love once more.

This has been a Letter from A. Broad written and read for you by Muriel Murch. 

  • Huw Edwards surfaced again via Twitter on Monday. Thanking the National Health Staff for all of their care while he was ill with pneumonia.
  • And as of this posting Boris Johnson is stable with oxygen in St. Thomas’s Hospital, London.

Keeping Calm in London Town

“You ol rite?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Not coughin’?”
“No Maddy, not coughing.”
And Maddy gives me a thumbs up sign before she scurries away to catch an overland train to Battersea and visit her ailing mother.

Thank you Zine

“Do you need anything? Can I shop for you?”
“Thank you Sinder. We are ok at the moment.”
A note is slipped through the letterbox from Zine our neighbor at # 37. “… I would be most happy to help”.
“Aggie, Aggie.” Mr Habto has returned from his early morning taxi run and is standing by his cab. 

“Anything we can do to help. Please let us know. Knock on the door or leave a note.”
Maddy is probably London born and bred, Sinder is Hindu, Zine is from Eastern Europe, and Mr Habto a Coptic Christian from Africa. This is the mix of the little community at the bottom of our street. They all have families to care for and yet are finding moments to be watchful over us. We have become the “old folks” on the street. Thus neighbour cares for neighbour in our little corner of London. And we are grateful.

It is Sunday afternoon. The sun will not come out again today. The wind is blowing and the raindrops seem hesitant and unsure where to fall. Families are walking home from their ‘fresh air and exercise’ moment in the park. Football games are still scrubbing along in the mud. White shorts are streaked with brown, hair is windblown and there is quiet laughter coming across the pitches from the players. Out there – the city, London, – is very quiet.

Boris Johnson and his lieutenants appear very old school serious as they stride to the podiums set up in the State dining room at Number 10 Downing Street, while trying to cover up the fact that Number 19 Coronavirus may be beyond their abilities. This may be the first time in his life that Johnson gets really serious, and not everyone is convinced he knows how to do that. We can only hope that he might in fact be growing into the role of Prime Minister and treating this with all with the gravitas it deserves. One does suspect that upsetting the populace is as an important part of the equation as is protecting the insurance companies. Another supposition is that this is seen, by Johnson at least, as his Churchill moment. One can be grateful though that he has these two lieutenants: England’s Chief Scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, and the chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty by his side. Whitty, or is it Vallance, produced graphs on a large board and pointed away so that the journalists in the room, sitting as close together as ever, could understand what was trying to be accomplished and then relay that information to us, the presumably less well-educated public. Vallance and Whitty are both, in their English way, considerably more competent than the school-yard gang that surrounds Donald across the water.

Daily updates from the government will now to come from Number 10 Downing Street as the situation changes every twelve hours with more confirmed cases and deaths. Johnson and his team are putting some guidelines in place while they wait to come down with a heavy hand. It’s a gamble for sure. Health Secretary, Matthew Hancock, sputtered and muttered on the Andrew Marr Sunday morning show about ‘Doing everything we can and self-isolation’. Manufacturers have an opportunity to make millions of Pounds Stirling and ventilators. “Other countries in the world will be needing them too.” Mostly though it is businesses, sports centers and banks (!) that are leading the way, encouraging working from home, cancelling big matches (though not the Cheltenham Race meet last week), and encouraging self-isolation.

And now, on Monday morning, there are more shutters coming down. Museums have already closed, special openings have been postponed, and the British Film Institute team all work from home, strategizing what this means for the film industry in England. We withdraw too, canceling lunch dates with friends and family. Being well over a certain age, 70, we are all ‘vulnerable.’ and many of us have at least one strike hitting our general health. We are being encouraged to self-isolate. What will happen then to the organizations run primarily by older volunteers who serve their communities? As I write an email comes through from one such trusted leader: ‘The Library is closed for the foreseeable future’. What will happen to those books? Sitting on their shelves so lonely and unread. Theatres, cinemas, concert halls, hotels and restaurants are all growing dark as their lights dim. Today all religious leaders united in asking their followers to pray at home.

Hand sanitizers are out and visible – where they are available. Otherwise it is serious and constant hand washing – by those who do that sort of thing. Shop-keepers and checkout folks wear rubber gloves to handle the £ coming in. And £s are rolling into supermarkets as folks panic buy and buy. That may have begun to calm down now with ‘assurances’ that the stores have enough of what we need stock-piled somewhere. This morning the pharmacy was full even as folks tried to stay apart from each other. The doctor’s office is closed with a notice on the door saying that appointments will be by phone for the near future! The local Deli and other coffee shops on the street are almost empty. Can they hold on for those over-70s for whom a little sandwich at the coffee shop is their main meal?

Daffodils from Taghi A’s Morning walk

We are grateful for the Hill and Regent’s Park where we can walk in isolation. Wild primroses rise from the soil to shine close to the ground. The daffodils are reaching their peak, staying upright through the foul weather of the last weeks. But the plum and pear trees lining the street are beginning to loosen their soft blooms and whisper in the breeze for us to keep heart. Our Robin Red Breast hops down to check my worm count as I work in the little garden. She too tells me to let the warming soil soothe my soul.

Primrose in St. Mark’s Church garden Wall. Photo WSM

‘Our’ Robin checking my work

Happy New Year 2016

New Year’s Eve Walk

Happy New Year.

We all say it. We begin around Solstice when we are adding ‘Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays,’ for all the winter celebrations that happen in most religions through to dear old Robbie Burns Night, this year on January 25th,

“Happy New Year to you.” “And to you too.” And we mean it. We smile as we pass each other on the street, wishing each other well, peace and health in our lives and even possibly a little prosperity thrown in. For in these days all angst between us is forgotten.

Paolo and his sign

This year there is a longer than usual lull between Christmas Eve with the ‘back to work’ week starting on January 4th. The weekend of January 2 and 3 has given us extra Twixmas days, as those days between Christmas and the New Year have been named in England. These are days are free days, as if in an Egyptian calendar of old. The Egyptians would take five days off prior to the summer Solstice (June 21) in their calendar year otherwise their agricultural rhythms would quickly become muddled. And somehow this falls, loosely in winter, into a pattern for modern Europe. Stores and galleries that could be open have closed shut.  Even Philip the Greengrocer at Yeoman’s has drawn his blinds and stuck a sign on the door, “We will reopen on January 4th.” Good for them. Paolo in his coffee shop on Delancy Street moves slower though his days. Maybe he is taking the extra cup of coffee for himself before facing us trending or grumbling old customers on Christmas Eve.

For some people these are days of total winter peace and contemplation or escapes to warmer climates. For young parents with families they are days of adventures or hanging out with the children while grandparents build memories that will become traditions. For others, the young and not so faint at heart, the days are filled with shopping in the crazy winter sales that beckon buyers in to lay down that credit card just one more time. But wherever and whatever we do we add, “Happy New Year.” to our daily greetings.

The Muslim grandmother who runs our local deli is dressed in her black hijab with a touch of cream here and there peaking through her headscarf. Her hair has turned from deeply black to hold wisps of grey since we have come to know her and she now rings up a senior discount for us both. She knows us all, our types, our styles our needs. “A Happy New Year to you my dear.” “And to you too.”

Crossing the bridge into Regent’s Park a young African woman is taking a selfie and seeing me smile laughs aloud at herself. She is athletic and out for a winter workout. Dressing in bright blue running gear, her hair up in braids she is sunny and beautiful. “Happy New Year,” She laughs at me. And I laugh back to her, “And to you too.”

It is quiet at the Newsagents and finally the Hindu gentleman left in charge on New Year’s Eve has time to ask me, “Are you married? Do you live here?” and more. We take the time he needs as I answer the questions that he may have held for the past ten years of our fifteen year time in the village. Finally another customer comes to the counter and we exchange a newspaper for coin and part. “Happy New Year.” “And to you too.”

Maddy is bustling with her dogs. Never without one to four dogs she walks out three times a day with them while her husband with his new middle-aged dyed beard occasionally goes to the store. Maddy doesn’t have time for the supermarket, she is too busy with the dogs so a grocery delivery van comes down the street for her once a week. Slowly, over the years, we have become friendly over dogs. Her beloved Lucky was in love with our Hana and the feelings were reciprocated with frenzied barking affection whenever they met on the street. She is smiling, “Happy New Year,” we laugh it together. Both happy to see each other and knowing there will be another time for a catch up chat.

After a film at Leicester Square, we walk around the corner into Chinatown on the edge of Soho. The streets are all a bustle and hustle, restaurants full and yet beckoning. A little Chinese supper would be nice. We eventually chose a restaurant where a smiling young woman, wrapped up in her winter jacket, hat and gloves welcomes us inside. The restaurant is full, happy Chinese, Arab, and European customers devouring an early supper. The young wait staff are dressed in black and serious. They have to keep everyone moving, and us particularly as we are a cheap-vegetarian-disappointment. The young men are all hooked up to black ear buds and phones. The food comes quickly up the dumb-waiter and the dishes passed along to us. The fortune cookie and the bill arrive together. We pay the bill and though my cookie tells me “You will make a good investment.” I’m not sure what that will be. Back down on the street the same young woman is smiling and beckoning passers-by inside. But as we leave and smile at her once more she bobs her bow, “Happy New Year, Happy New Year to you.” “And to you too.”

Girl at a bus stop

Returning home, we meet Stan who is heading out to The Queens Pub on the corner walking slowly with his beloved old dog. Though rarely with his teeth, Stan steadfastly walks his dog twice a day. He too has come to know something of us and when I greet him, “Happy New Year Stan.” it is to the boss, my husband, that he relies, “Appy ‘ew Year to you too Sir.”