Tooting Common is usually the preserve of dog walkers and young parents, a square of open green space where on warm days sunbathers flower like lily pads and anglers can be found, nodding into their fishing rods on the small jetty by the pond.
But one Thursday at dusk, in the middle of 2020’s heatwave, the sedate regulars were pushed out by chattering teenagers — thousands of them streaming in from all sides of the common, wearing combat trousers and crop tops. Bolstered by one another — by their own vibrancy and aliveness in the face of so much dullness and so much death — they reclaimed the common from the yummy mummies and yoga bunnies, set up a sound system and started to dance.
I’d been living in Tooting for almost three years and had never seen a rave on the common, let alone one orchestrated by a flashmob. I asked one of the girls how they all knew about it. Snapchat, she told me. Another heatwave day on Hackney Marshes, as I rode my bike towards Homerton Road, I saw the same thing again, a makeshift festival spring up in what seemed like a matter of minutes; hundreds of young people swarming in from all sides and suddenly a sound system, and suddenly dancing. Police officers mingled but weren’t, as far as I could tell, trying to disperse the crowds, which was probably for the best because the crowds — laughing, hugging, bumping along together to a reverberating bassline — did not want to be dispersed.
If police reports are anything to go by, these overflows of revelry have happened a lot over the past year. Street parties in Brixton and Notting Hill, gatherings in Maida Vale, Tottenham and Hackney, even a rave in the middle of Soho. As older Londoners — at greater risk of serious complications if they caught Covid — stayed indoors and as the tourists who usually populate the centre of the city stayed away, it felt like the only people left on the streets were the young.
‘In a strange way, the past year has given me more drive to explore,’ says 32-year-old writer and marketer Ava who has lived in Tottenham for 14 years. ‘Before I split my time between Shoreditch, Dalston and Tottenham. I live in a flat with no garden and no outside area, so I quickly realised that I’d go a bit mad just staying in.’ Along with her partner, she started cycling the city — over a completely empty Tower Bridge at 9am on a weekday or up to Primrose Hill and Hampstead Heath. ‘There were a lot of spaces that I would never have gone to before because they never felt like they belonged to me,’ she says. ‘Swimming at Hampstead Ponds or at the Olympic pool in Stratford — London’s at its best when it’s busy but it can be intimidating to go to places you’ve never been before because crowds of regulars tend to dominate.’ Alex, 23, a geopolitics masters student at King’s College, agrees. ‘Areas that usually belonged to people in suits or to parents or tourists became ours,’ he says.
‘For a while Hackney Wick was exclusively people in their 20s,’ says 25-year-old recruiter Sophie. She recently moved to nearby Bow after a fall in rent prices meant she could start living on her own for the first time. It is a bright, mild summer evening and she is sitting on the bank next to the River Lea with a friend. A few metres away is Barge East, a 118-year-old Dutch barge which has been converted into a bar and restaurant, and which is doing a roaring trade in takeaway cocktails. There is a febrile hum in the air. No social distancing, no masks, people loll and drink together. Sophie is sipping white wine from a plastic cup. In March rent prices in the capital fell to a five year low (though they’ve recently rebounded). Hackney Wick in particular saw an exodus of residents — becoming one of London’s least searched for locations on property listings sites. ‘I guess people went out to the countryside if they could,’ says Sophie. ‘There’s not a lot of green space around here.’ What there is, though, is ‘a good vibe’. Despite the lockdowns she says there were parties — ‘canal boats with sound systems which go up and down the river, wherever they stop people just get up and start dancing. Day or night, there’s been music and dancing.’
Nearby, 26-year-old Keira is drinking Cherry B (a sweet cherry wine) and tonic with her friends. They all grew up in Hackney and have watched the area change over the years. ‘London has never been more full of Londoners,’ she says. A cheer goes up as the sun sets. ‘For a while no one was thinking about the future,’ she says of the party atmosphere. She worked in retail and was on furlough for three months last year. ‘It was all too uncertain; if you were young you just wanted to concentrate on the now. So we’d just be out by the river, chilling, having a good time.’ She says that since the city has been opening back up she has regained some optimism. ‘I’m working and setting up a business via Depop. It’s easy to be your own boss now, and if the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that we can’t rely on others for our income because look how quickly it can all collapse.’
Amy, a 23-year-old east Londoner, works doing ad hoc PR for an NFT artist who pays her in the cryptocurrency Ethereum. ‘During the pandemic a lot of people my age have given up trying to do things in the traditional way; which is why I think they’ve been attracted to cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies — because they don’t trust the establishment,’ she says. In fact, in a survey of 3,000 16-24-year-old Londoners conducted over the summer of 2020, almost 60 per cent said they didn’t believe that those in power knew the issues they faced. This sense of disenfranchisement is perhaps understandable — the number of under-24s on Universal Credit has tripled during the pandemic, according to statistics published at the beginning of July.
Student Alex found himself locked in halls during the last lockdown. ‘It was horrible,’ he says. ‘You definitely felt abandoned and at the mercy of these really arbitrary rules. It was pretty grim.’ Amy gave up an office job last year. ‘Life’s too short,’ she says, wearily. Recently she has seen friends getting sick from Covid ‘because they can’t get the vaccine yet. I think most Londoners my age now feel like they have to fend for themselves.’ It’s not all bad, though, she says. ‘I think what comes out of this period — in terms of art, new businesses and the shift in attitudes — will be really exciting.’
Of course, excitement and fear are two sides of the same emotional coin. And for every excited young Londoner, there is another who looks to the future and feels a prickle of dread. ‘We’re being demonised, pushed to the bottom of the pile for vaccines, no one cares about our job situation. Why are we getting the worst of everything?’ says 22-year-old Jon. He is shirtless and carrying a Guy Fawkes mask. It is 26 June, the day that should have spelled the end of all restrictions. Instead, Boris Johnson pushed it back another month. And so partygoers have turned protesters, with thousands of them taking over central London to march for ‘freedom’.
Piccadilly Circus is all but shut down, with sound systems on floats playing house music or reggae or R&B. The atmosphere is wild; joy tinged with hysteria. The crowd is a mix of ages, though most seem to be under 40, carry placards, Union Jacks and rainbow flags. Every so often chants of ‘we will not comply’ go up. ‘This is what it would be like if Notting Hill Carnival happened in central London,’ says Joel, a 21-year-old from New Cross. ‘The difference between this summer and last summer is that people are angry now.’ Unlike some of the protesters he is pro-vaccine and says that he can see the value of lockdowns. ‘If they were put in at the right time… But I’m angry because I feel like the Government has mishandled so much about the pandemic. Lockdowns were implemented too late, and then had to go on too long. I feel like the Government has directly stolen a part of my youth.’ This sense of flinty, bright-eyed rage runs through the crowd, who nevertheless dance and sing — compelled to celebrate, even in their despair. ‘We’re taking the city,’ laughs one of Joel’s friends. ‘It’s ours now.’
At the beginning of July, Primrose Hill has a similarly carnival atmosphere — though it is altogether more silly and hopeful, perhaps because the crowd is very young. These teenagers — who tumble down the hill, tripping and twirling with the effort of staying upright after too many swigs of supermarket-brand vodka (drunk neat, with a wince) — will be some of the last to get the vaccine and some of the hardest hit by the economic fallout. But they seem sanguine — greeting one another with screams of delight and arms thrown around necks.
They gather around speakers and sing along to pop songs from the early 2000s. ‘I love you,’ says one girl to another, drunkenly. ‘Ohmigod, I love you too,’ her friend shouts back in a rush. They trip into one another, laughing. ‘We got this,’ says the first. Her friend replies: ‘We do, we got this.’