Letter from London

Harry Thorne on ruin and austerity in the UK’s epicenter

Millennium Bridge and St. Paul's Cathedral during the Covid-19 shutdown. Photo:  Nick Simon / Alamy.

LONELY FIGURES walk the streets of London. A service worker circles the columns of the Bank of England. A tourist slides into the shadow of Centre Point. A solitary trader is eclipsed by the shadowed dome of St Paul’s Cathedral; around him, emptiness where emptiness should not be.

As in every western capital, photographs of vacated London streets have become ubiquitous. Lest they be misconstrued as stock architectural images, their creators ensure that the capital’s famed avenues and alleyways are always occupied by one individual, a not-too-subtle reminder that these streets were built to be populated; that, as familiar as our current situation might now seem, something is not right. Crisis requires a human face, always.

This is not my London. Like many friends and colleagues within the cultural sector, I live and work in the southeast of the city, where parks and public spaces continue to be, if not busy, then occupied. Market stalls are manned; bus routes are operational; joggers and dogs have increased tenfold. It is not so much our lives that have altered but the pace at which they are lived: A trip to the supermarket is skillfully timed, a video call coordinated across days, a pilgrimage to buy cigarettes dictated by a stranger’s steps. This is neither isolation nor togetherness, but rather an enforced compromise, one of a kind with Barthes’s “idiorrhythmic” living: “something like solitude with regular interruptions.”

Grocery shoppers in London. Photo: Nickolay Romensky.

Barthes believed this notion of mediated social proximity to be a “fantasy.” In its current iteration, it assuredly is not. For while we might operate at a remove from one another, at a remove from our world, the pressure upon those within the UK cultural sector is, as elsewhere, intimate and threatening. It is no secret that the arts are built upon foundations of precarity: For too long, artists, freelance workers, and those on zero-hours contracts have valiantly propped up the industry, with the latter receiving a median hourly wage that is £4.10 lower than other workers. When, as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, museums shut their doors, festivals were indefinitely postponed, and publications slashed their commissioning budgets, the vulnerable were first to go, cast away by the very sector they helped to create and forced to fend for themselves (as they always must).

It would be disingenuous to say that support has not been offered. The government’s debt-financed Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which pays furloughed workers 80 percent of their salaries up to £2,500 per month, was recently supplemented by an initiative to support millions of self-employed individuals. In the cultural sector, Arts Council England made £160 million of emergency funding available, guaranteeing that it will continue to fund its leading National Portfolio Organizations under “relaxed conditions.” But grants run out, as does goodwill, and governmental assistance is often insufficient by design. (As a relative newcomer to self-employment, I qualify for no state assistance.) Once the grace period is over, what will remain of this structurally defective industry, one in which arts and culture contribute £10.8 billion a year to the UK economy while the essential workers that fall within the lowest income bracket remain vulnerable? It can feel myopic, at times selfish, to focus on culture when larger factors are at play, but lives are at risk all the same.

Figure standing near the Bank of London. Photo: Steve Nimmons.

As I trail my solitary figures through these photographs of London, I vicariously stalk the capital’s lonely center: I loop the Shard, cross the Thames, look onto the water; I follow the bank, follow the Millennium Bridge, lose my way in Cheapside. From my small, second-floor flat, I exist within multiple cities at once. The first, intimate and imitating life; the second, distant and all but emptied of it: London as contemporary ruin.

“Ruin […] is precisely not a theme,” writes Jacques Derrida in Memoirs of the Blind (1993): “Ruin is, rather, this memory open like an eye, or like the hole in a bone socket that lets you see without showing you anything at all, anything of the all.” That images of dereliction and architectural ruination can act as a catalyst for expanded thought is an age-old proposition. For the English Romantic poets, notably Byron, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, the ruin was not simply a spatial terrain but also spatiotemporal, at once connected to the past and the future (or the possibility thereof). To gaze upon fallen architecture was to glimpse at, contextualize, one’s own mortality; to move within an emptied-out landscape, to empty oneself out. “I have felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts,” Wordsworth wrote while looking over a ruined abbey on the banks of the River Wye, “a sense sublime. . .”

J. M. W. Turner, Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window, 1794, graphite and watercolor on paper.

Which is not to say that photographs of London at rest will engender some profound moment of existential epiphany, nor that it is helpful to reduce such scenes to metaphor. (Who the fuck wants metaphor in a crisis?) But there is a potency to their emptiness, a sense that what is held within their frames—or, more precisely, what is not—indicates a far greater rupture, one that is both existential and fatally real. The hole in a bone socket that lets you see. In recent weeks, these images have come to exist as visualizations of that which is ordinarily, intentionally, invisible: of a socioeconomic system that is bent out of shape and ill-equipped to deal with a nationwide crisis. In their desolation, these scenes expose a decade of austerity, a grossly underfunded healthcare system, an ostracization of the most vulnerable members of society. They unmask an elite ruling class that is unwilling, or unable, to care. What better than an image of ruin to remind us that this cannot last forever?

As of today, the UK government has officially reported 12,107 deaths from Covid-19. Of these, 3,071 have been in London hosptials. Transport, hospitality, and leisure industries have been hit; property prices have fallen; food banks have reported critical shortages. But the capital has also become the site of one of the most farcical attempts to govern in recent years, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s self-proclaimed “war cabinet” issuing a string of contradictory directives on a daily basis. In late February, Johnson made a well-documented case for “herd immunity,” a method of group protection that occurs when a large number of people contract the disease and, in time, develop a resistance to it. (Chief advisor Dominic Cummings summarized the strategy as “protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.”) Immediately, the announcement was met with criticism from medical experts, politicians, and the general public, but it was not until March 23 that the Prime Minister officially reversed his decision and announced a strict national lockdown. Four days later, he developed mild symptoms of Covid-19. On April 7, he was moved to intensive care. (He is yet to return to work.)

Mask vendor in London. Photo: Nickolay Romensky.

This is the third London. A darker London, one of packed emergency rooms, makeshift hospitals, morgues. It asks too much of collective compassion, as it does basic medical supplies. It knows more of death than we ever will. (See how easily that word – “death” – has come to roll off the tongue?) For me, for now, this city remains thankfully abstract: a ticker tape of escalating numbers, an interchangeable regiment of talking heads, the rearticulated language of war. (A number of emergency field hospitals that are currently being erected throughout the UK take the name of Florence Nightingale, who nursed soldiers to health during the Crimean War.) An odd effect of removing oneself from the world is that it becomes harder to imagine reality—or separate it from premonition. All that occurs is out there and not in here, and what is out there and not in here can be, often is, willfully neglected in the name of self-preservation. Yet still we must acknowledge it, fear it. For the fate of this world, however distant it might appear, however far we might drive it from ourselves, remains inextricably bound to our own: Its lives are our lives, its deaths our own. We must force proximity just as we distance; we must show this awful place respect.

Harry Thorne is a writer and editor based in London. He is a contributing editor of The White Review.