London is three weeks from being unmasked. That is three weeks from escaping the oddest, for many the bleakest, year in its modern history. We will emerge like Fidelio’s prisoners from their cells, showing our faces, blinking at each other, smiling and shaking hands. It is hard to imagine how this will feel.
Over the past year we have grown used to being veiled in our public encounters. A female friend tells me she has felt liberated, more able to wander the city without feeling on parade, without needing make-up or sensing the stares of passing males. Eyes need never meet. The public domain is granted its privacy.
I too have watched London as if from behind a screen. On the rush-hour Tube, face covering has removed the tension of a stranger just inches from oneself. So too in the supermarket check-out or petrol station queue. London is a Venetian masked ball, where we can all dance the metropolitan waltz without knowing our partners. We can just be ourselves.
Whenever London has returned from such a historical trauma — the plague, the Great Fire, the Blitz or whatever — it tells itself that things will never be the same again. I felt that when walking down a totally empty Oxford Street or cycling through a silent City. I recalled Pepys’s reflection on the plague, “Lord how empty the streets are and melancholy”.
Likewise I heard on television his lament, “So many poor sick people… so many sad stories as I walk, everybody talking of the dead.” It took London 10 years to recover from the plague and perhaps five to recover from the Blitz.
After the Great Fire, John Evelyn wailed that “London was, but is no more.” After the Blitz, the philosopher Bertrand Russell predicted the city would be “one vast raving bedlam, the hospitals stormed, traffic ceased, an avalanche of terror”. They were wrong. London returned to normal, different, but somehow stronger.
Today’s city has taken a terrible pasting. According to the Centre for London, the collapse in tourism and hospitality has left its unemployment the highest in the country, at 6.8 per cent, or 40 per cent above the national average. No one expects this to improve fast. But this predicament has concealed subtle changes.
Experts predict a shift from the social and collective towards the private and individual. Thus we will bicycle rather than use public transport, awarding Transport for London a financial nightmare. We will prefer the comfort of on-line shopping and doorstep delivery, forcing thousands of shop assistants to become warehouse keepers and van drivers.
Above all, we will move out of offices into anywhere else we can find, into attics, basements, sheds, cubby holes and vacant shops. The prediction is that as much as 20-30 per cent of time previously spent in offices will now be housebound. We will all be a little more “masked” than before.
Within this shift will have emerged new rituals, even ones that may last. Londoners have been forced back into their neighbourhoods, finding in them a new communality. Streets have organised themselves to check on the elderly, organise food, help with children and even hold socially distanced street parties. I know people who remark on “what interesting people live in my street, if only I had known before”.
That is why many people, I sense, will keep wearing their masks. The Japanese, who have long been seen wearing masks in public, often do so not to avoid infection but because they like the privacy.
Without our masks we will feel a little naked and avoid crowds. There will be more use of taxis and private vehicles. The street will be more anonymous, with fewer of the pre-mask encounters, the interactions, smiles, nudges, uncertainties and occasional embarrassments.
This may seem a pity but it is not really new. I know an American who loved comparing London with New York. In New York, he said, you made friends easily and quickly, and lost them the same way. In London he found friends came slowly, but they were for life. This London has always been semi-masked. I believe it will stay that way.