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The Strange Etiquette of Coronavirus in Empty London

Blog | By Harry Mount | Mar 26, 2020

Empty Camden Lock today (Credit: Harry Mount)

A friend of mine says that, in his daily walks during the lockdown, 'I surreptitiously breathe in,' when he passes other people in the park.

One of the strange side-effects of the horrible coronavirus is that Londoners have become much more polite to each other. On the inside, we're scared; and, on the inside, we breathe in. But, on the outside, we're much more civil and friendly.

Part of the reason is that there are so few people about; fewer people to squeeze by than in the normal, crammed rat-race of central London life. Central London, near the Oldie office in Fitzrovia, has become like a village in the middle of a huge metropolis.

On Great Titchfield Street, I see, through the office window, three people (a singleton and a couple, in government-approved formation), where normally at lunchtime there would be a rush of dozens.

The rarity of seeing people means that, when you do, you're friendly. I chat to the lady in the supermarket and wish her well in a way that would be crazy in normal times - and infuriating to the person who would be standing behind me in the queue. But, in the Sainsbury's on Mortimer Street, there is no queue.

Walking in the park, people don't just surreptitiously breathe in. They also give each other a wide berth for social-distancing reasons. But, so as not to be rude, they start veering apart from each other long before they actually pass each other. To suddenly step away from someone would be rude; to plan your social-distancing a minute ahead isn't.

The threat of death in the air also gives everything a sense of perspective. 'Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully,” Dr Johnson said. Well, even the very small increase in the chance of death of you or your loved ones makes you realise quite how little everything else matters.

I've stopped getting cross with drivers and other bicyclists. In any case, there are hardly any cars in the city and bicyclists give each other a ten-feet wide berth when they overtake these days.

And those huddles of bicyclists cramming together at the lights ahead of the traffic? Well, there aren't enough cyclists to constitute a huddle in central London in these dark yet heartbreakingly sunny days.