The lockdown lexicon continues to intrigue. I wrote a few weeks ago of the sentiment 'when everything gets back to normal', although that's notable by its absence now we're into week six. Instead the talk – from Nicola Sturgeon to Dominic Raab – is of a 'new normal', the same phrase a friend of mine used in a WhatsApp conversation a week or so ago. I know from my political journalism days that the best soundbites or slogans are those which echo what voters are already thinking and articulating. Familiar language is more likely to stick in their minds and change the way they think.
It seems we'll learn later this week what this new normal might look like, although it'll likely be very new indeed. Many of us, of course, already inhabit an adapted version of our old lives, certain aspects of which may persist when everything gets back to (the new) normal. I haven't used public transport in over a month and will probably cycle everywhere from now on (and I see increasing chatter about encouraging this in policy terms); I now work from home five days a week instead of one, and will likely be among the last to 'go back' to working from Parliament.
On a more mundane level, I order more than I used to online, grind my own coffee beans (I know, I know) and sleep considerably better. If required to, I won't hesitate to wear a mask if the trade-off is greater freedom of movement (I already have one on order, a black cycling mask with filters). Human beings are adaptable; indeed they have over the last few decades adapted to greater challenges than this. What do I miss? Planning a new trip abroad or at home; a nice meal or cocktails at one of London's many excellent but now moribund restaurants; going on dates; socialising; swimming at the London Fields Lido.
Happily, having begun lockdown at just over 12 stone (which was 'overweight', according to my BMI calculations), on Monday morning I clocked in at just under 11, a consequence of eating less and better, almost daily (online) yoga and continuing to explore the Imperial Capital on socially-distanced foot and wheels. Last Thursday, I took the afternoon 'off' to take advantage of the sunshine and revisit some of my favourite architect's London work.
The modernist Thomas S Tait isn't a household name but his work is familiar to many, notably St Andrew's House in Edinburgh and the old Daily Telegraph
building on Fleet Street. He also designed many of the temporary structures associated with the Empire Exhibition of 1938. The excellent Dictionary of Scottish Architects
website guided me towards some other Tait buildings in the capital, one of which turned out to be a stone's throw from my office near Westminster Abbey.
And what variety. Municipal housing in Whitechapel, banks and offices in the City, shops and showrooms on and off Regent Street, apartment blocks in Chelsea, a Christian Science church in Notting Hill, private houses in St John's Wood and a dental clinic on Grey's Inn Road. The 1930s were Tait's most prolific period, and I even found two examples within minutes of my Hackney home: Evelyn Court on Amersham Road (sadly much altered over the years) and the elegant Bruno Court in Fassett Square, built as an extension to the nearby German Hospital. Now armed with one of Nicholas Pevsner's guides to London, this architectural sightseeing should keep me busy well into next month.
During the same cycling excursion to central London, I received a verbal warning from a police officer in Hyde Park. This was not, I hasten to add, lockdown related, but for the relatively humdrum office of cycling down a short connecting path which clearly said 'no cycling'. On being asked if I understood why I'd been stopped, I fessed up, apologised and the policeman, looking slightly taken aback at my candour, said he'd waive the usual £60 on-the-spot fine and give me a verbal warning instead. Honesty, as they say, is the best policy. There followed an amicable chat about lockdown and human behaviour. The police officer then complimented me on my (new) bike and wished me a pleasant ride.
That's not what would have happened in the movies. Now the weather has turned in London (which ought to help dampen the much-reported 'fraying' of the lockdown), I have time to catch up on one of my favourite genres, apocalyptic movies. In the past week, my brother and I have already watched John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids
, both the tame Hollywood version (complete with happy ending) and the recent BBC remake (complete with Eddie Izzard playing a villain called 'Torrance'), and the rather dated The Omega Man
starring Charlton Heston, which later became I Am Legend
with Will Smith.
Smart science fiction always has something to say about contemporary society, and both The Day of the Triffids
and The Omega Man
highlight humanity's over-dependence on technology and the debilitating societal effects of unexpected and sudden change. Another example of this genre, Contagion
(2011), proved a little too close to home. Depicting an airborne virus spreading from the Far East to the United States and the scientific community's attempt to find a vaccine, the screenplay was full of now-familiar language: lockdowns, quarantine, and yes, even 'social distancing'. I found myself wondering how future movie-makers will depict the new normal.