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London gets to grips with the ghost of a dead future

London Letter: Return to normal life leaves many feeling unhappy and let down

It promised to be a fine day but not just yet and it was still pelting down outside as I stood hesitating in the drab, sprawling lobby of my flat block. The porter had a Bach cello suite scraping away in the background behind his desk and I wandered over to ask how everything was going.

“Hell is other people,” he said.

He always has a book on the go, usually a classic of some kind and often at the more serious end of the canon with the Russians, the French and the Germans among his favourites. He went through an Existentialist period last year but when I asked him, he told me he was reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

He plays classical music all day, and his musical choices are a better guide to his mood than his reading, with any deviation from the great German composers of the 18th and 19th century a sign that all is not well. The most alarming turn came during the deepest lockdown weeks last year when he abandoned music altogether in favour of Tony Benn’s recording of his diaries.


"To the cabinet again for another four-hour sitting on devaluation and inflation, ending at 1 o'clock. The question now is whether George Brown will resign," would drone out of the little speaker behind the desk.

One of the curiosities about life in London right now is that restaurants, bars and taxis are busier than before coronavirus but nobody seems to be happy and everyone is wishing for something a little better

Now the porter wanted to complain about my neighbours, more particularly those who were most aggressive and relentless in their complaints and demands. In the past few months, as life has returned more or less to normal after the pandemic, they have been getting worse.

“They stand there where you are now and they can be very nasty, shouting at me,” he said.

Getting their way

I told him the problem was that it worked, the most difficult people usually got their way because it was easier to give them what they want. But what got to him was how much stronger their position was to his and how powerless he was in the face of their abuse.

“You can say anything you want to me,” he said.

“I can never tell you what I really think of you.”

The look on his face told me that might be just as well and as the rain was easing I went on my way. Around the corner, the owner was laying a little table outside the Italian restaurant that specialises in feeding the old, the lonely and the well-heeled.

Since he reopened in September, he lost all his staff and he serves all the tables with his wife and daughter while a newly hired chef cooks everything alone in the kitchen downstairs.

“When I close tonight, I’ll have to go downstairs and wash all the dishes,” he said.

“I’m 60 years old.”

One of the curiosities about life in London right now is that restaurants, bars and taxis are busier than before coronavirus but nobody seems to be happy and everyone is wishing for something a little better. Stressed-out staff are constantly apologising to irritable customers and although everyone was aching for a return to normal life, it appears to have left many feeling let down and restless.

Now that case numbers are surging and hospitalisations and deaths are rising, the government is under pressure to activate Plan B by bringing back compulsory face coverings and introducing vaccine passports. The fear is that, once again, they will move too late and will have to impose harsher restrictions as winter approaches.

Sense of drift

I moved on from the restaurant owner, walking through Belgravia past boarded up shops to the Royal Court on Sloane Square to see Caryl Churchill’s new play What If If Only. She’s now 83 and her plays are getting shorter each time but although this one lasts less than 20 minutes, it resonates uncannily with the sense of drift and dissatisfaction that’s abroad in London now.

It starts with a man sitting alone at a table drinking wine and talking to his wife, who has died, reminding her that they promised to stay in touch if they could if one of them went before the other. Then a ghost appears but she tells him she is not the ghost of his dead wife.

“I’m the ghost of a dead future. I’m the ghost of a future that never happened,” she says.

She begs him to make her happen, telling him she’s a brilliant future and that she could have happened but people kept choosing the wrong things and let her die.

“I’ve been glimpsed, I’ve been died for,” she says.

“My enemies say I’m utopia, a nowhere place and I’m not. I needn’t be perfect but better.”