London cuts its cloth to suit its measure as priorities rearranged

London Letter: Stripped-down city feels empty as tourists and office toilers stay away

It was already too late as he was on one knee measuring part of my leg and lapsing into an anecdote about one of the famous figures he has dressed. Photograph: Bruno Vincent/Getty

The cygnets were almost as big as their mother but they were still grey and fluffy and vulnerable to random acts of violence from the hard chaw mallards that cruise around the lake in St James’s Park looking for trouble. Leaning over the blue bridge across the lake, with its spectacular views to the west of Buckingham Palace and to the east of Horse Guards and Big Ben, I watched as a cygnet dodged a peck from one green-headed tormentor only to be hit by another.

Looking away, I spotted my favourite a little further along, a magnificent black swan apart from the rest as usual as its red bill dipped into the water, and I thought about the duck that changed my life a long time ago.

It was in Dublin in the middle of the 1980s and I was sitting in the front seat of a large black car, an intermittently employed actor in my early 20s driving to the funeral of someone I wasn’t sure I had met. In the back, Beatrice Behan was catching up on the latest news with her sister Celia Salkeld, an actor with the RTÉ Players.

“Have you seen the new duck in Herbert Park?” she said.


I knew at once that I had and a few weeks later I left for Berlin, not to return to Dublin for almost 25 years.

This reverie in St James’s Park would have been impossible before coronavirus, when the blue bridge was so teeming with tourists that it was a struggle to walk across it. Now it was almost empty, the green and white striped deck chairs scattered across the grass near the Mall were abandoned and even the pelicans Isla, Tiffany, Gargi, Sun, Moon and Star were on their own.

Row of parcels

A few children played near a herd of lifesize wooden elephants on display here for a while to raise awareness of human encroachment into nature. Leaving the park, I turned into Birdcage Walk and looked across at Wellington Barracks where the Guards Chapel and some of the other buildings were tightly wrapped in tarpaulin like a row of parcels.

I recalled a conversation with an old gentlemen a few weeks ago when he listed some of the long-forgotten strictures Guards officers had to follow when in London. They could not be seen using public transport, carrying a parcel or holding an unrolled umbrella and they had to wear a bowler hat during the week and a trilby at weekends.

A couple of stray tourists wearing face masks were leaving the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace but there was no queue and little sign of life. It was the start of the weekday rush hour but Victoria station was as sparse as on a Sunday morning, half the shops on the concourse still closed after almost 18 months.

"Wicked – the untold story of the witches of Oz" is currently more untold than ever because the Apollo Theatre will remain dark until September. The nail bar a few streets away with a giant portrait of the king of Thailand behind the counter will never open its doors again and with no tourists and few office workers, those restaurants that have survived are struggling again after a brief surge.

Tweed jackets

At least one local business is thriving and, as I passed between the tall vitrines displaying sharply cut tweed jackets above a medley of ties, socks and braces, the tailor looked up and affected his most abject expression. After waiting for months for a suit he promised to deliver by the end of May, I had seen him boasting in a newspaper feature that he had never been busier and he had been fobbing me off with an assortment of excuses for weeks.

“I need to take your measurements again, sir. We had a flood,” he said as I walked in.

I asked him to tell me that he was not saying he had yet to start on the suit and I told him that with Midsummer’s Day already behind us and the nights drawing in, it was now really becoming quite urgent.

“It’s more than urgent, sir. It’s an emergency,” he said.

I said nothing as I considered whether I should tell him to forget all about it and demand my deposit back, as I knew a more assertive customer would. But it was already too late as he was on one knee measuring part of my leg and lapsing into an anecdote about one of the famous figures he has dressed.

“The first time I met him was when Mr Getty rang me up and said ‘I’m going to fly you to Antibes and you’re coming onto my yacht’,” he was saying.

I knew I had blown my chance before he confirmed as he opened the door to let me out that my order had already been downgraded from an emergency or even something urgent.

“Don’t worry, sir. It’s a priority,” he said.