Essay : For the first time in four years, I'm speaking to my neighbours
London isn't known for its community spirit, but this might change during the Covid-19-crisis.
London - There is a British poster you are probably familiar with, because it has traversed the world with the speed and alacrity of a viral pandemic - I’ve seen it hanging framed in cafes in Seville, and outside bars in New York, as well as on aprons, mouse-mats, and with countless hilarious modifications: in white writing on a red background, the original reads “keep calm and carry on”, accompanied by an image of the British crown.
It was produced by the Ministry of Information in 1939, to be used in the event of attack on British soil, and over 2 million copies of the poster were printed. It has become synonymous with a fabled British stoicism, reserve and perseverance. And like so many of the greatest national myths, it is a total fabrication. The poster was never made public, and the millions of copies stayed in storage throughout the war, even when aerial bombardment of London began in 1940. It was only discovered in 2000, by the owners of a small second-hand bookshop; it became rapidly famous, and gave Brits another excuse to project heroic defiance - the ‘Blitz spirit’ - backwards onto a crisis most of them had never experienced.
These myths are coming back to haunt us now we face our first genuine national emergency - discounting Brexit - in decades. We have had panic buying, empty supermarket shelves, widespread public confusion (thanks to unclear government messaging), and several major policy U-turns, sometimes within 24 hours - it has been anything but calm. It doesn’t help that we have a delusional Winston Churchill fanatic and biographer leading the country at this moment of crisis.
Boris Johnson has shown his determination to play the role of his wartime hero by deploying a new kind of British exceptionalism. With parts of continental Europe in lockdown already, the Prime Minister announced on 12 March that his government would pursue a laidback strategy of “herd immunity”, allowing the virus to sweep through up to 60 per cent of the population. The same jingoistic libertarianism that motivated Brexit was in evidence: we are Brits, went the implication, and being ‘free’ is more important than following the advice of supranational organisations like the WHO.
I shook hands with everyone, you'll be pleased to know.
Our loved ones across the world were astonished - and they were worried about us; British friends living in Italy and Spain screamed at their parents back home to ignore Johnson’s complacency and stay indoors. But the pubs, restaurants and schools stayed open. In mid-March, rock band the Stereophonics went ahead with two huge homecoming shows in a 7,500-capacity arena in Cardiff.
The border between heroic defiance and outrageous stupidity is often a porous one. On 3 March, Johnson had cheerfully announced at a press conference that he had been to a hospital with coronavirus patients: “I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.” Only a few weeks later, on 27 March, he announced he had tested positive for Covid-19 coronavirus and was self-isolating - along with his chief adviser, the health minister and the chief medical officer. This is where ‘keep calm and carry on’ gets you.
Later than almost every one of our European neighbours, we finally caved to the inevitable and entered lockdown at midnight on 23 March. That morning, I cycled 20km across London from my girlfriend’s house to my own, knowing that it would probably be the last time I would see her for… weeks? Months? It didn’t really bear thinking about.
The city was ghostly quiet, eerily empty of cars and buses and people; reminiscent of the infamous opening sequence of the cult zombie film 28 Days Later. On Upper Street in north London - usually a bouji promenade, bustling with people spilling out of restaurants and bars - a man in late middle-age played the Italian partisan anthem Bella Ciao on the accordion, to an audience of pigeons. On Blackfriars Bridge an athletic young woman in gym lycra used a skipping rope - in normal times she would have been flattened by a horde of unsmiling commuters in suits and ties, on their way to the financial district.
In south London, as I cycled through the half-abandoned apartment blocks on the Aylesbury Estate, a squirrel paused in the middle of the road and looked around, as if confused by his own freedom. Venice has seen fish and seabirds taking over its canals again; Llandudno in Wales has witnessed goats taking over its town centre; in London, we have foxes and squirrels.
Lack of affordable housing
The Aylesbury Estate is a controversial social housing project completed in the 1970s, once home to 7,500 people, and is now in a state of purgatory - it is partly demolished, partly vacated, and partly still occupied. Surrounded by newly built luxury flats, it has become a strange concrete relic, in a city of gleaming new steel and glass - a reminder of what inner London used to look like, prior to two decades of unabating gentrification. In 1997, Tony Blair announced his era-defining election win with a speech at this estate: there would, he promised, “be no forgotten people in the Britain I want to build”. Since then, London has just got richer and richer - its GDP has continued to soar, along with its house prices, even after the global financial crisis - but the poverty has not been ameliorated, only pushed away from the centre, as the city becomes more like Paris.
Although it is very early in the lifespan of the covid-19 crisis, and its immeasurable economic fall-out, people have begun to speculate that this might finally be the thing to burst the London housing bubble, and slow down the capital’s turbo-gentrification. A version of the ‘white flight’ to the suburbs in post-war America seems plausible, as middle-class professionals flee to their second homes in the countryside to ‘escape’ the virus. Perhaps, when all this finally abates, having realised they can work remotely, they might decide never to return to the crowded, dirty metropolis? In a city riven by inequality, and desperately in need of affordable housing, it’s hard to see a downside to this outcome.
It’s easy to forget that London saw some of the worst rioting in its entire history, less than a decade ago. The August 2011 riots were sparked by the execution-style killing of a black Briton called Mark Duggan by the police, but fuelled by the much more deep-lying problems of systemic police racism, inequality, youth alienation, and the Conservatives’ harsh austerity policies. In the aftermath of those riots - in which 30,000 people were estimated to have participated - there was a citizen-led ‘riot clean-up’ organised via social media, and the then-Mayor of London Boris Johnson showed up on the streets, and was handed a broom. The glass was swept up, and the problems brushed under the carpet.
Londoners are notorious for not talking to each other on their cramped underground train network, the tube, and this sullen silence is sometimes mistaken for hostility or antisocialness, which isn’t really fair. The pub is for chatting, and the cramped tube train is for listening to music and staring at your phone. But it’s true that the British capital has an underdeveloped community spirit - that we don’t traditionally talk to our neighbours, let alone strangers.
Mutual aid groups
It seems significant that some of the hyper-local covid-19 ‘mutual aid’ groups in other European countries have been built on pre-existing networks: in Italy, the Catholic Church and the Communist Party; in Spain, the neighbourhood chapters of the PAH, the largest housing activist group in Europe. In the UK, these groups have emerged recently and spread like wildfire, too - and they are wonderful, heartening things - but our previous community organisation was so emaciated, that we have effectively all started these conversations in the last fortnight. I have already got to know more people in my block of flats than I had previously spoken to in four years living here - even if I have not seen most of them face-to-face.
Using WhatsApp to communicate and Google Drive to share information leaflets and safety protocols, the covid-19 mutual aid groups were the initiative of a tiny group of anarchists in Lewisham, my part of south-east London - and these self-organised, democratic networks were replicated across the entire country in a matter of days. We carry out shopping and collect prescriptions for elderly neighbours, share information about hygiene protocols, food delivery services and food-banks, and pass on tips about which supermarkets have which product in stock.
In the absence of clear messaging from Boris Johnson’s government - and it has been dreadfully inconsistent, slow and confusing, facing criticism even from senior Conservative politicians - it has been cheering to see grassroots, democratic community groups pick up the slack. If we are going to be in a lockdown for months yet, these groups will be vital in protecting our most vulnerable citizens. One question beginning to emerge from the British left, who are still reeling from the Conservatives’ devastating defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in December, is whether the mutual aid groups might provide the basis for local solidarity and community support beyond the current crisis. It is so early, and Britain’s covid-19 death rate is starting to increase rapidly, as expected - but in a crisis you take hope where you can find it.
Few Brits will accept this, but the historical reality is that the fabled ‘Blitz spirit’ of community aid and togetherness, that supposedly sustained Britain during the Second World War, is part truth, and part fiction. While some people helped shelter their newly homeless neighbours, or shared their last loaves of bread with those most in need, others were looting and robbing, as gang crime and murder thrived in the darkened streets of the capital. Rather than obsessing over national historical myths, my hope is that we can find a genuine spirit of solidarity in the present - but it will not always be easy.
Last week, a medical team arrived in London from China to aid the British covid-19 response - they were welcomed by some, and met with racist comments from others - the kind of people who have not quite accepted that China is the imperial power that Britain once was. On Monday, a video was shared of the doctors unloading boxes of medical supplies that had been sent over by the Chinese government. If you looked closely, the labelling printed on the side of the box was clear - it was a message of friendship and moral support from the People’s Republic of China: Keep Calm and Combat Coronavirus.