Everyone remembers being a child and losing your mum in a shopping centre. Even if it’s just for a few seconds, there’s an overwhelming rush of panic, a total loss of self. Now imagine the shopping centre is the size of Basingstoke, and full of mud and shouty strangers in Carhartt hats on pills. Last week, Professor Fiona Measham, chair in Criminology at the University of Liverpool, addressed a DCMS ‘Future of Festivals’ select committee on ‘drug checking and drug use’. It comes amid fears that this summer could see a combination of new super-strong drugs and festival-deprived caners meeting in an unfamiliar, packed field with potentially disastrous consequences (Measham also runs the Loop, which since 2016 has been doing onsite drug tests at clubs and festivals to find out exactly what people are taking). Basically, the worry is that 2021’s festivalgoers could go so ham it’ll look like the Continental meats aisle in Aldi.
One of Measham’s recommendations is a ‘lost adult’ space at festivals. Not for people in the throes of a horrendous existential bummer, but for literally lost ones. Ones who’ve misplaced their phone/friends/tent rather than their minds. I asked Measham what had prompted her idea. Inevitably, a whole lot of it has to do with that pesky mobile device your entire life revolves around: ‘There’s poor mobile phone signals at remote rural festivals,’ she says, ‘often overloaded by 10,000s of people trying to upload selfies from the same field. People often don’t memorise phone numbers like in ye olden days so even if they can find someone else’s phone to use, they don’t know what number to ring, and half of [festivalgoers] take drugs and most drink alcohol, so there’s a lot of intoxication leading to people losing their phones and bags.’
Measham points out that although festivals have welfare and first-aid areas, if you’re simply lost, you won’t be a priority, and your friends won’t necessarily think to look for you there, even if they can tear themselves away from Bicep.
We’re just not match-fit for a summer of debauchery
So she proposes a dedicated ‘lost and found adults’ reunion service. ‘Festivalgoers register their nominated best friend and their friend’s mobile phone details when they buy their ticket,’ she says, ‘and then the festival app could send out push notifications and/or texts to their friend’s phone to meet them at the designated reunion point if they get lost.’
It’s a simple, brilliant idea, and it would make everyone immediately feel a lot more secure. But why stop at festivals? Our city of 8 million people is about to be let loose after a year indoors (barring a few park tinnies). We’re just not match-fit for a summer of debauchery, and London is increasingly going to feel less like the city we know so intimately, and more like an unfamiliar, giant festival, with loads of street crowds, street food, street drinking, no doubt a few impromptu raves and some protests. Under the circumstances, a similar service for Londoners sounds like a great idea.
Because we’ve all felt lost in our own city. Too much coffee, hangover brain fog or just being bloody exhausted: lots of things can make you feel all alienated. And you know what would exacerbate that feeling? If your only social activity in the last 12 months was a #dailywalk and the occasional discreet meet-up. We’ve stayed local, like we were told to, and now loads of London feels like a remote, imaginary place. Is it still there, even? It wasn’t like it was that easy to navigate before. Most of us have probably been physically lost at some point here too (have you ever attempted to walk round Clerkenwell without Google Maps?). And almost everyone knows the cold horror of clutching for your phone or wallet to find it gone – and with it the networks of money and communication we rely on to feel connected and safe.
Every year (except last year, obviously), Time Out goes big on Pride and Carnival and all the fun stuff they bring to our city. Every year we – rightly – feel that we should offer advice on how to stay safe at them too. Both events have first-aiders and volunteers to help people who have gone a bit far, but I’ve simply got separated from my friends at Carnival before and it was miserably shit. I ended up just going home, clutching a sad half-full can of warm Red Stripe all the way while humming the bassline to ‘Street of Gold’ on a loop like a lunatic. If you’re lost or alone, there’s not much anyone can do for you. It’s not just these mega-events, though. All sorts of things can turn the city that we know, love and – generally – trust into a defamiliarising hell. Terror attacks, tube breakdowns, demonstrations: when our routine is unexpectedly destroyed, we quickly become lost, both mentally and sometimes physically.
What if London suddenly makes us more unsettled than we’re used to?
So, as we emerge, blinking, into 2021, let’s do ourselves a collective favour and get something in place to help people in case it might all prove too much for them. Let’s repurpose some of these empty West End shops as safe spaces for ‘lost adults’ rather than turning them all into so-called ‘creative hubs’ and vape stores. They could work along similar lines to Measham’s festival idea: you’ve lost your phone, your money, your mates. You go in, give a PIN/password/ID/whatever and they contact your nominated person to let them know you’re okay and they can come and pick you up (or choose to ignore you). Not only that, though. They could be great for when being in the city has simply got too overwhelming for us, when we need a calm space to allow us to reset for a moment.
Or do the same in London’s parks. The Victorians laid out green spaces because they realised that the city was toxic, both literally and figuratively, for a lot of its inhabitants. Maybe that toxicity is slightly different in 2021, but it’s still there in some form (we’re stuck indoors in tiny flats, disconnected from our city, wondering what the point of London is any more). Perhaps bigger parks could have ‘lost adult’ tents in them, like at a garden fête, where you could reconnect with your wayward mates when you’re eight M&S tins down and your phone’s dead.
Our city is going to have to do a lot of reinvention over the next few years, even if we manage to largely control Covid. A lot of the government’s focus has inevitably been on getting everyone back into communal spaces: bars, restaurants, pubs, shops, sports grounds. Which is fine, but what if we don’t quite feel the same about them any more, or if they suddenly make us more unsettled than we’re used to? It’s like having a panic attack on a plane: it doesn’t matter that you’ve flown for years with no problems – flying will never be the same afterwards. It might take us all a while to get used to London again. One thing that could help everyone, though, is to feel less alone; even in – especially in – a crowded city. If you knew that you could find your friends, that losing your phone, keys or wallet didn’t irrevocably cut you off from the rest of humanity, or if you simply felt like it was getting too much and there was a safe haven, I think we’d all be a lot less anxious.
So, before you launch yourself feet-first into the glittering metropolis, take a moment to remember that it’ll all be weird for a bit, and be prepared for that. Everyday things like fending off a balloon peddler while drunkenly queueing for a nasty kebab on some random greasy London street at 3am having lost one of your shoes could feel like an exotic fever dream. If you’re really worried, make sure you have your mum with you.
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