In an empty capital city now occupied by idle men-at-arms, Pissed-off Toff finds himself losing all sense of time and wondering when the spell that has been cast on this realm will be broken.
WEDNESDAY 22 APRIL
A pristine spring sky.
A single relentless angle-grinder on a nearby building site – one of the few still open in London – destroys the enjoyment of what would otherwise be glorious peace.
I ring an old flame from long ago who is stuck in her large house in the country with her boyfriend; drinking too much, she happily admits. The two of them, both of whom took early retirement and both of whom have pots of money, seem to be rather enjoying this suspension of ordinary reality, and have occasional illicit meals with neighbours.
A brother, also retired in his mid-fifties, seems perfectly content in his house in London, together with his wife and daughters. He is probably better off here than at his villa in the Mediterranean, where the lockdown is altogether more severe. Every second day he drives to Richmond Park and goes for a long walk. He reads, he cooks, and he does not watch the news, at all. This is a considered decision, and a wise one, surely.
So no. Few of my friends seem to be suffering over-much during this lockdown. But they will get a nasty surprise when taxes go through the roof to pay for it.
* * * * *
I bump into an elderly neighbour who has lost one of her front teeth, and is as a result looking a little weird. However, her dentist has shut up shop, so she has to grin and bear … so to speak.
Afternoon walk. One result of this lockdown and the absence of traffic and normal distractions is that I find myself admiring architecture to which I had not, previously, given much thought.
Here, for example, is a building called Cathedral Mansions, at the top of the Vauxhall Bridge Road. In normal conditions, you might pass it a hundred times without particularly looking it. But stand back, ignore the scruffy shops at street level, all now closed, and you see that it is a fine edifice, built with pride and panache some time around 1900, in the Imperial Baroque style. (I’m guessing, however, that the large windows in the slate roof between the two red-brick arches are recent – and of course unfortunate – additions.)
In the evening, I go to a local Waitrose shortly before it closes, to find that they are almost giving away quantities of good food … this, the manager tells me, a result of the lockdown.
I buy a large Charlie Bigham fish pie for 75 pence and several of his smaller fish pies for 65 pence each; four pots of healthy humous for 25 pence each; a large luxury quiche for 55 pence … and a great deal else besides … all of it at around one-tenth of the original price. Taking as much as I can, I sort it out in the kitchen, and leave bags hanging on the doors of various neighbours.
It is the smallest gesture of goodwill towards a number of kind and patient people who are, I fear, more familiar than they might wish with certain Bach preludes and Chopin waltzes, the playing of which nowadays preserves what little sanity I have left.
THURSDAY 23 APRIL
The Chief Medical Officer (a certain Chris Whitty) says that the current ‘social restrictions’ – in other words, the complete suspension of normal life and the imprisonment of the entire nation – might have to last for the rest of the year.
How can anyone begin to entertain such a frankly sadistic fantasy? Once more, thoughts of rebellion well up in my chest.
Keen to take my mind off the wanton destruction of the course on which we are embarked, I go out for a walk. It’s the most beautiful spring day. A group of people dressed in law-enforcement black and with ‘Victoria Security’ emblazoned on their backs are strolling lazily along the street, not far from the railway station.
The group of four consists of a plump girl with nice skin, an obese slob, and two weedy boys. That’s ‘security’ is it? Plus, for what purpose is this now-ubiquitous ‘security’ needed? Everyone’s locked up at home.
I come across a clutch of trees in bloom which temporarily lifts my spirits.
I then walk past Victoria Coach Station, still closed. Mainly from habit, I take a photo of this still-strange sight.
Nearby, a man with ‘Community Support’ inscribed on the back of his high-visibility jacket is talking to a poor toothless tramp who is surely far past any sort of redemption.
Let’s take a tally of the various police and police-like forces which, over the last month or so, have been ever more visible on the empty streets of the capital. We have ‘Enforcement Officers’ … we have ‘Marshals’ … we have individuals with ‘Patrol’ emblazoned on their backs … we have ‘Community Support’ people; who, I note, are a branch of the Metropolitan Police … and in my own area, we have ‘Victoria Security’ people.
Then, of course, we have the Stasi proper; who, now that they have announced, with evident relief, that ordinary crime no longer interests them, have emerged from their hiding places and are hurtling round the empty city, engines roaring and sirens blazing.
I enter the King’s Road, where more and more people are wearing masks and surgical gloves, like automatons. I pause to scribble an embittered reflection in my note-book. “We have turned into a nation of cowering serfs, the playthings of bullying police, mad ‘scientists’ and idiot politicians.”
I walk into Partridge’s, the luxury grocer in the Duke of York Square. No queue here, plus they are usefully open from 8am to 9pm, seven days a week. I thought, to begin with, that this Corona scare would infect only the gullible and ill-educated. I was wrong. Inside the shop, plenty of evidently sophisticated – or at any rate, well-heeled – people are wearing masks, prey to the universal fear.
At half past five on this Thursday afternoon, I take a photo of a long stretch of the King’s Road without a single vehicle in sight, and speculate that the image has a certain historical interest.
Homeward-bound, I take a photo of a lone cyclist dressed in pink, zig-zagging along in the middle of the broad road that runs through Eaton Square. Why bicycle sensibly on the side of the road, after all, when you can have fun in the middle of it?
Shortly afterwards, I take a photo of the intersection of Victoria Street and Buckingham Palace Road, again entirely empty at ‘rush-hour’ on a weekday. Here, as everywhere else, it is impossible to ignore the obnoxious propaganda for the NHS, manifested in the illuminated blue panels which demand your attention wherever you go … propaganda created not by the nurses and doctors who do work that matters, but by their incompetent managers, who are cynically using this ‘crisis’ to ensure that in future they will have all the money they ask for, to waste as they please.
I pick up a free copy of The Evening Standard. The economic news could hardly be worse. The economy is witnessing a collapse on a scale “previously thought unimaginable” … unemployment is set to rise to a hallucination-inducing 20% … and the national debt to soar above 100% of GDP.
It hardly bears thinking about. Yet still the fools and knaves who govern us are pressing for more punishment, more idiocy, more destruction.
FRIDAY 24 APRIL
I receive an email from my friend stuck in his villa by the sea somewhere in the eastern part of the Mediterranean. He’s been working hard in his garden, which he had been neglecting for years, and after weeks of this healthy activity he is bronzed, lean and fit. I email back saying that he will return home to England like the travel-weary Odysseus to Ithaca, unrecognised by all except his dog, which will come up to him wagging its tail.
A call from another friend, stuck on his farm with his wife and three strapping sons. Not only has he stopped drinking, but he is on a diet too … and has as a result lost almost 1½ stone over the last five weeks. He now fits into the jackets – but not yet all the trousers – of suits he had made years ago. “I feel as though I’ve been given several thousand pounds’ worth of new clothes,” he says.
I ask, awestruck, how he managed to knock off the booze. He has made no big promises, he answers; he just decided to stop for a while; and if someone said to him that he’d never be able to have another drink again, he’d be horrified. But away from his London club and the temptations of a busy social life, it isn’t so hard. And it’s easier to have no alcohol than a small bit, he says; so when in need of a treat, he now drinks San Pellegrino with ice and lemon. His skin is clear, he sleeps like a log, and he looks ten years younger.
A third friend, who knows I am the author of this blog, emails me unexpectedly from his country residence in Norfolk to express his incomprehension and disapproval of my view that what we are witnessing is mass hysteria stirred up by the broadcast media, and that the lockdown is a grotesquely disproportionate reaction to the reality of the threat. He asks for clarification.
I email back at length, elaborating on various matters open to debate and pointing out a number of undisputed facts; for example, that the NHS is not overwhelmed, that 42% of their beds are currently empty, that the emergency ‘Nightingale’ facilities are largely unused, and that many doctors and nurses are sitting around twiddling their thumbs in half-empty hospitals.
However, this friend from Oxford days is having none of it, and replies that he could, if he wished, refute my points one by one … that he could, if he wished, explain to me, line by line, why he is right and I am wrong … but that it would be best, on second thoughts, if he didn’t.
Yes, that would indeed be best. Especially since the last time I saw him and his wife was at a fabulously grand dinner party at which I was the host.
SATURDAY 25 APRIL
Last night I went to the local Waitrose shortly before closing time, and once more picked up lots of food that they were almost giving away. Who can say no to sourdough pizzas reduced from £5 to £1, or to bags of health-giving spinach for 20 pence each, or to a large carton of Portobello mushrooms for the same price?
This haul is far too much for my own needs, so this morning I disribute most of it among my neighbours.
* * * * *
The long days, each identical to the one before, now merge into each other. This morning I had to think quite hard to work out what day of the week it was.
Many years ago, when I had a well-paid job in the City, one knew only too well when the weekend had come. No 6.30 morning start to get to the office on a crowded Underground; plenty of cash to spend in restaurants with friends, or with which to go a-courting; and a beautiful Alfa Romeo sports car in which to speed off to the country. What fun that would be now, with less traffic on the roads than at any time since 1955 …
But now one is a prisoner, and every day is the same. I have lost sense of time to such an extent that I have started keeping a record of telephone calls made and received. I also feel curiously listless. I am doing no proper reading. All I can manage is magazines.
Nor am I doing the serious piano practice that I imagined would occupy my time; partly because it would not be fair to the chap who shares this flat with me, and for whom there is no escape. So I do an hour a day at the most. Not learning anything new, either. Just brushing up, in a slightly desultory way, on stuff I already know, with a bit of harmonic theory thrown in.
I am also developing some slovenly habits; more, even, that I had before. For days on end I do not bother to shave. And as for clothes, I wear anything that comes to hand. One reads, in Somerset Maugham, of British officials ten thousand miles from home dining alone in a dinner jacket. And did Jules Verne’s creation Captain Nemo not wear a smoking jacket in the evenings as he sipped champagne alone in his submarine?
But I can drum up no enthusiasm for such solitary theatre; so my smoking jacket remains in its wardrobe.
SUNDAY 26 APRIL
Famously, on the day of the storming of the Bastille in 1789, Louis XVI, fifteen miles to the west in his château of Versailles, wrote just one word in his diary: Rien.
‘Nothing’: that’s my entry for today, too.
However, I did take a photograph of Whitehall, seen from the west end of St James’s Park, and looking like a magical city straight out of a fairy tale.
Is there any particular fairy tale that comes to mind? It’s The Sleeping Beauty, surely, in which a wicked witch casts a spell on a beautiful princess, and in which she and everyone else in the royal castle fall asleep for an indefinite length of time, pending the arrival of a prince in shining armour.
It sounds rather like ‘lockdown’, doesn’t it? And we all know who cast the spell this time round … not just on the royal castle, but on the entire realm. It was the evil sorcerer Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London.
But who, now, will break his spell? And when? In the fairy tale that our lives have become, that chapter is yet to be written …