Silent nights in London as city drifts into unofficial shutdown

London Letter: Shops, restaurants, theatres struggle as gloomy message takes hold

A quiet Oxford Street in London on Wednesday morning. Photograph: Ian West/PA Wire

A quiet Oxford Street in London on Wednesday morning. Photograph: Ian West/PA Wire

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The old peer was swaying only a little, his eyelids still half open and the medley of blotches and broken capillaries across his nose and cheeks no rosier than usual. Tilting his head towards a man at the end of the bar he spoke with the furry but emphatic diction of a man in his condition with something important to say.

“He got punched in the face by a Romanian billionaire,” he said.

We were in an old-fashioned place for old-fashioned people and the woman behind the bar had seen everything in her time and ignored most of it. Her regulars worshipped her for a multitude of reasons, not least because of the mixture of gentle indifference and cool indulgence she used to keep them in order.

The injured party had asked for a pen and paper and he was composing a letter of complaint, supported with advice on the finer points of drafting by the old soak next to him. 

“We’ve been lunching through,” the old peer said.

Despite his privileged background, he has lived an unhappy life and tragic personal losses have left him frozen in grief. Eight-hour lunches with a dash of physical violence may not be what the doctor ordered but the threat of separation from this place in another lockdown filled him with gloom.

“Bloody Boris,” he said.

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It is a complaint heard all over London for the past week as the city went into an unofficial, pre-Christmas shutdown that has left shops, restaurants and theatres struggling during what should be the busiest time of the year. 

New phase

This phase of the pandemic is different from the others insofar as Londoners appear to be more compliant with the guidance but less afraid of the virus itself. Everyone wears a mask in shops and on public transport now and many wear them outdoors too, while the long-forgotten elbow bump has made a comeback.

When I arrived at a restaurant the other day for lunch with an old friend, he was already at the table wearing a mask which he kept on when I sat down. He told me he had to take a flight before Christmas and he was worried about getting Omicron, failing the PCR test and being stranded here.

He took the mask off when the food arrived and we settled back into one another’s company, catching up with all the bad news and comforting one another with stories of our misfortunes. 

All around us were empty tables and the manager said it had been the same all week, even on Friday and Saturday night.

“Ever since Boris said work from home, that was it,” she said.

On the way home, I walked past the little Lebanese café around the corner and saw the barber chatting with two of the staff outside. Inside his shop were three other barbers and just one customer.

“It’s a Christmas tradition now, lockdown,” he said.

He too blamed the advice to work from home but he noted that everywhere was affected this time, even the big, fast fashion shops on Oxford Street.

“People are afraid of another lockdown and they’re keeping their money,” he said.

Failing light

By the time I reached home the light was failing and I took a turn around the square to catch the last of it. There was a faint thump of a football being kicked inside the railings while an electric taxi hummed quietly past but otherwise it was silent apart from the birdsong above.

Most of the houses were dark and although the hotel was lit up with decorations outside, there was only one bedroom with a light on inside. Ahead of me, I heard the rattle of wheels on a suitcase pulled by a young woman who slowed down as she approached a house with a few steps up to the door.

She was still at the bottom of the steps when the door opened and a dog ran out leaping and yapping and whipping everything with its tail to welcome her home. The door closed behind her and the square went quiet again like the city all around it, closing up ahead of a more silent night than any of us wished for.

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