Missing crowds still

[First used as a monologue script for OnLondon, broadcast in April 2020]

Early morning on Hove seafront, and the broad walkway is dotted with dog-walkers, joggers, and couples taking a stroll in the morning sun. Everybody is complying with the two metre rule, more or less, setting and adjusting their courses to minimise proximity. Occasionally someone stops dead, or abruptly switches direction, and ten others carefully re-order their routing to respond to the change.

It is a stately but slightly stuffy sight, and I suddenly know what it reminds me of – a slow-motion, spatially exploded version of Victoria Station at rush hour. Here on the coast people frown if they see someone within four feet of them; there workers, tourists and day-trippers would surge simultaneously in every direction, somehow managing to avoid each other by inches or even millimetres, marking near misses and glancing collisions with apologetic smiles.

And it’s then I realise how much I miss London’s crowds, the ebb and flow of the city’s life. Cities are at once alienating and intimate. When I visited London as a child, I found the relentless busy-ness and pace of the city distressing, even exhausting. When I moved to London, I made my peace with the throng, learning to find refuge from and even within the most crowded places. Now that I have all the calm that I could need, it is those crowds that I find myself missing.

Peter Ackroyd devotes a whole section of his London biography to the mob, treating it as an essential element of the city. “The crowd”, he writes, “is not a single entity manifesting itself on particular occasions, but the actual condition of London itself.” The courteous bustle of London’s concourses is in some ways far removed the unruly mobs that Ackroyd records surging through the capital’s streets, their polar opposite even. In other ways, however, the crowd is the mob’s politely evolved descendant, a hivemind bent on efficient movement and orderly function, not on chaos and destruction.

Cities are masterclasses in this type of subconscious collaboration. Every day, millions of people displace themselves, barely acknowledging each other’s presence, but choreographing their movements nonetheless, in the tango of a crowded station concourse, the waltz of a busy bar, the dos-a-dos of letting the passengers off the train first.

When this crisis passes, as it will, London will begin to buzz with life again. But there may be a lingering loss of ease with the intimacy of strangers. None of us quite enjoyed the experience of cramming cheek-to-cheek on the tube, but it was treated as a brief inconvenience, not as a health hazard or a micro-aggression.

London may take some time to get close again.

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