This is not a travelogue, nor is it packed with recommendations for places to eat in the Big Smoke – apparently the most popular nickname for London, according to Google. Yesterday marked my first daytrip to London in well over two years. That’s not to say I haven’t seen London at all during the pandemic, but those were trips getting to or from airports, with fleeting glimpses of the skyline from an overground train. Ely to Nice is inevitably via London. But Nice, the fourth largest city in France, has nothing on London when it comes to crowds and narrow spaces, where I have been imagining spiky Covid cells floating from one Londoner to the next. My day in our country’s crowded capital was my act of defiance, my coming to terms with the idea that I must learn to live with ‘it.’
Like so many of my past trips to London, this one was spawned by political activism. Make Votes Matter had organised a rally in Parliament Square to protest against voter suppression and in support of proportional representation. Voter suppression is the hidden agenda of this government’s proposed Elections Bill, currently getting readings back and forth in the two houses of Parliament. As for proportional representation, the current system for voting in the UK gives victories to candidates with the most votes and the party with the most seats, even if these results are far less than 50%. Stay with me. This means that in a country with more than two viable political parties, the majority of the votes could be against the Conservatives, for example, but the Conservatives still win because the opposition votes are divided among say four other parties. If you’ve been following British politics, you’ll have recognised that my example is in fact the reality. The last time Parliament was won by a majority was in 1935 (Statista) and the unpopular Conservatives were in power for most of the 20th century and since 2010.
While these are causes worth rallying around, more important for me was being outside in the gathering of some 500 people. We didn’t need to wear masks or keep two meters apart. We talked to people we knew and to a couple of strangers and we joined the group chant of ‘No way,’ responding to a speaker’s rallying cry. We were in a dome where Covid seemed a distant memory.
Yet, the true highlight of my London day was a visit to the Tate. I’ve been to some museums in Nice during the pandemic but felt safe doing so with pass sanitaires being scanned for entry. At the Tate, some Covid protocols were in place. We had to book our free tickets in advance as numbers entering were limited, and we had to wear masks – all sensible measures. The health protocols kept me aware of the times we live in, but the works of art – J.M.W. Turners, Henry Moore, the Pre-Raphaelites – transported to that other space where only art and creativity can take me. A true and real space, to loosely paraphrase Aristotle.
The rally and the museum were the pleasurable parts of the day, as was a long stroll in the winter sun from Parliament Square to Blackfriars Station to catch the Thameslink train back to St Pancreas. The not so pleasurable experience came when riding an underground train, the aptly named Tube – in these small carriages, designed in the days of Victoria, I felt like a rat in an underground pipe, encrusted with dirt, potentially with disease.
On a more positive note about the Tube, I’m reminded of a much-quoted passage from Peter Ackroyd’s London Under which encapsulates how I felt at the end of the day:
‘The passenger travels within the origin of the city. It is a curious fact that the further the train moves from the centre of the city, the more anonymous it becomes. The journey becomes less intense. It becomes less intimate. It loses its mystery.’
London in these Covid days of partial restrictions has become less mysterious and less intimidating as I have grown more used to living with the pandemic.