I’ve caught the train to London twice in the last six weeks. Both times for a day trip. Leisure, not business. The first, in early September, to go see the British Museum. And again last week, with Mrs P, to see a photographic exhibition at Somerset House, followed by a 90 minute tour through a handful of the V&A’s many galleries.
The main museums and galleries are free, as they were before the plague. But one must book a timed ticket these days. The British Museum allows just 2,000 people a day to waltz through its doors, as opposed to the near 20,000 a day that would crush through them in the days of yore.
This makes for a very pleasant experience. I had time to gaze at the Rosetta Stone and try to make out the shapes and text where one would once have stared at the backs of groups of tourists several rows thick, before giving up and settling for a look at the replica in the library. The Elgin Marbles were a delight without the crowds. It’s a less rushed, less stressful experience.
London seems a much less confrontational place in late 2020. You are more welcome that ever in restaurants and stores. People smile. No one seems terribly angry. And yet. There is an enveloping sadness that is consuming the city. It’s somewhat hard to put your finger on it. But it’s there.
It’s there in the street, the tarmac looking naked without the traffic. It’s there is the stone and brick of the architecture, with buildings feeling unwanted and neglected. It’s there in the adverts for plays, exhibitions and events that would have taken place last spring and summer. It’s there is the Tutankhamen cups at Caffe Nero, left over from the exhibition last winter. Sadness looks out at you and follows your every move.
Let’s hope that this ends. Lets hope that plague lets up. Let’s hope that London will once again be filled with joyful traffic jams, deafening you with horns, choking you with fumes. Let’s hope that London will again be filled with happy jostling crowds of foreign tourists and delirious bus loads of screaming children. Let’s hope that London will again be filled with the delightful rush and stress that it’s so famous for. Let’s hope London will rediscover its marvellous sense of normal.