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Lockdown London
Image: Bryan Mayes

London is awake again, but something’s changed

Stories of hardship, healing and hope from a city in metamorphosis

Kate Lloyd

Tower Bridge. The Gherkin.

Every day in lockdown Joshua goes for a jog around the City.

Guildhall. St Paul’s.

It’s like being in a movie, he says: ‘all the landmarks but everything is closed’.

Barbican. Monument.

He thinks about all the things he’s grateful for. Tells himself: focus on today, not yesterday, not tomorrow. Then he heads back to Travelodge London City where he’s living alongside 164 other homeless people. He doesn’t know how much longer he’ll be able to stay.

For three months, parts of London that are usually in constant motion – Oxford Circus. Soho. Trafalgar Square – have stood still. So still that photographers have biked or walked miles to capture them, feeding a public hungry for at least one beautiful thing to come from the pandemic. Even if it’s just: ‘Oh my God, look at Tate Modern without the people!’

But while our city might look static, life here has not paused. Ripples of change and challenge have coursed through people’s lives: the way we work, the way we see friends, whether we can hug our parents, whether they remain alive. Luck has been redistributed, disparity has heightened. Covid has reshuffled every Londoner’s cards. And yet, across the city, people have helped each other, toughed it out and adapted.

London has survived.

Lockdown London
Image: Bryan Mayes

Heathrow Airport. Travelodge London City.

For three and a half years, Joshua lived in Terminal 5 in the UK’s biggest airport. It was supposed to be a short-term thing. Once a banker, his career had been rocked by the 2008 financial crash and then capsized by the Brexit downturn in 2016. He found himself living in a hotel off his savings until they started to dwindle and then sleeping on the street in Charing Cross until it got too cold. When he spotted a night bus to the airport, he took his chances.

His routine ran like clockwork. Wake up at 4am and use the airport’s showers during the shift change. Dress smartly – ‘like a traveller, not a homeless person’. Eat one meal. Spend daylight hours using the wifi in hotel lobbies, coffee shops and local libraries to look for work. Stay positive. Focus on today, not yesterday, not tomorrow. Return to the terminal to sleep. Start again.

Then, on March 20, he noticed that the libraries were shutting. Then it was Costa – while he was sitting in it – and the Travel Inn. Then Heathrow Terminals 3 and 4 closed and he started to get extremely worried that they might shut the whole airport and he’d have nowhere to live. ‘I didn’t know where to go next.’ he says. ‘It was a very low point. I’d been on my own on the streets for three and a half years and things were just getting tougher.’

What happened next was luck or maybe fate, says Joshua. The day he decided to stay in the terminal rather than look for a library, a cafe or a lobby was the day an outreach team worked their way through it.

The hotels that are being used to shelter homeless people during the pandemic are run by charity St Mungos. If you speak to a volunteer they’ll tell you that running them is busy work. They help people apply for Universal Credit and permanent accommodation. Sort meals. Find lost keys. Grab people Mars bars. When it’s sunny the space comes alive, when it rains people sleep for hours. And increasingly guests are worrying about what comes next.

Joshua has been writing in his journal a lot, hoping that he might publish it as a book one day – a riches to rags story, he says. St Mungo’s is helping him find a one-bed flat he could move into. That will change everything, he says. It’s hard enough to get a job without a permanent address in normal times, let alone with a global pandemic on. He says that some hotel guests will still go and sit outside nearby supermarkets and underground stations to make money. They tell him that whereas once they were ignored, now shoppers are going inside and bringing back whole bags of food to them. Attitudes have changed. ‘Even the government has realised that after years of policy changes something needs to be done here,’ he says, thoughtfully. ‘It would be a shame to tell everyone: Okay, the lockdown has been lifted. Time to go back on to the streets.’

Lewisham Hospital. Hoxton.

When you work in the ITU at a hospital in a pandemic, people at work start to avoid you, says Sam. They’d swoop to the other side of the corridor when they saw the emergency and intensive care doctor coming. He can’t blame them. He worried about infecting people too. Namely, his partner Rosy.

2020 was supposed to be the illustrator’s year, or so said all the cards she’d got from her friends. In 2018, seven months into her pregnancy, she found out she had bowel cancer. In 2019, she learned it had spread to her liver. Then came chemo and surgery and Sam having to take a year off his job – at Lewisham Hospital – to look after their newborn while she recovered. Right now they were supposed to be putting it all behind them. Her first real year as a mum. She’d imagined walking the baby around the park and a trip away as a family. Finally, some calm. A fresh start.

Then Sam was on one of his first night shifts back when the first Covid case arrived at Lewisham Hospital. And then she got the letter saying that she had to shield. ‘The government kept saying at those 5pm briefings that PPE is coming,’ says Rosy. ‘We were saying we can’t wait for that, he’s going in to work today.

At one point there were so many Covid cases at Lewisham Hospital that they had to send patients in ambulances to other healthcare centres. The number of deaths was rising. The age of death was decreasing. Sam would come home from work exhausted, his hands raw from constant disinfecting.

It’s at times like these, says Rosy, that you realise the government won’t look after you. It’s communities coming together that make sure people are okay. She started writing to companies and asked them to send her hand creams, shower gels, moisturisers, snacks, tea, coffee. ‘Boxes would turn up without us asking,’ she says. Sam would take them to Lewisham for the NHS workers. Their tiny Hoxton flat started to look like a corner-shop backroom.

Eventually, Rosy wondered: if she could get companies to share these products, could she also get some of the PPE doctors were lacking too? And again she asked places for donations and soon acetate (from lingerie-making) and foam was on its way to her flat and her seamstress friend was sewing it together. ‘It was empowering,’ says Rosy: spotting the problem and just getting it fixed. But it also made her think: Surely if she could do it, the government could have done it too?

Rosy says that the pandemic reminded her of when she was sick. It made her grateful for the people that rallied around her, for Sam and her daughter, for the fact she was alive. ‘I’ve got so many friends whose treatment has stopped because of the pandemic,’ she says. ‘And they’re just sitting there, like: I’ve got a tumour inside me, killing me.’

Lockdown London
Image: Bryan Mayes

Monument. Cannon Street.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays cleaner Nancy and cleaning manager Celia always make time to eat lunch together. They’ve worked with each other for 16 years in a big glass box of an office block near Monument station. Normally there are 1,800 people working there but at the moment there are 20. It takes everyone a while to get used to seeing it empty, says Celia. It’s very sad.

Usually, Nancy and Celia will get something to eat from Waitrose before they sit and chat. More often than not, that’s about their families – in Colombia (Nancy) and Spain (Celia) – who they both miss very much. Two of their colleagues returned to their home countries for good at the start of the pandemic to be closer to their parents. Celia says that a Spanish expats Facebook group she’s in is full of people leaving.

Cleaning has become more stressful since the pandemic. ‘You want to wipe every single handle, every single thing. Wiping, wiping, wiping,’ says Celia. They’ve had to start using stronger products and focus on more areas: do their best to make people feel safe. Before clients were always trying to review costs, like ‘We clean the carpets once a week, can we clean them once a month?’ But now, because of the pandemic, suddenly they have millions and millions to spend on cleaning. (Although two of Celia’s three cleaning jobs still pay less than London Living Wage.)

The office workers seem to have more solidarity with Nancy and Celia now. ‘Before they’d expect the cleaner to come behind and clean everything for them,’ says Celia. ‘If they’ve dropped coffee on the kitchen counter they expect somebody to come to clean it up.’ Now they’re being more considerate: placing their mugs in the dishwasher, putting their rubbish in the correct bins. Celia’s changed too, she thinks. She’s worked Monday to Sunday nearly every week for nearly 20 years. Now she thinks that family is more important.

‘If I could be with my family it would make my whole experience completely different,’ says Celia. But she’s not, so, right now, she’s lonely and full of anxiety. Neither Celia nor Nancy could get flights to their home countries if there was an emergency. It’s unlikely Nancy will be able to go to Colombia until next year. Learning that made her cry and cry.

Brixton. Hackney.

Have Londoners cried more over the past few months? They’ve probably shed more tears two metres from friends. And outside shuttered venues. And inside hospitals. In Paddington, nursing associate Sagila explains that she never cries about work, but that Covid broke her. Her ward became the kind where every shift a patient would die. They were short-staffed. PPE was restricted. She kept asking herself: Could I have done more?

‘What must it be like to have to die by yourself,’ she says, ‘without saying goodbye to your wife or husband or parents?’

Perhaps there have been more tears in parks, as loudspeakers have demanded people ‘keep moving, please keep moving’. There have definitely been more tears shed over Zoom calls, rolling down cheeks and splattering on to keyboards. And more shed as basic needs, like human touch, aren’t met.

In March, Dom stood at the entrance to his 86-year-old mum’s bedroom as she cried. He’d gone to drop off her shopping and some food he’d cooked her. She’s got dementia and relies on his visits to survive. It was her birthday. Tears streaked her face. Just come and cuddle, she kept saying, just take your gloves off and hold my hand. It was hard, says Dom.

It’s in moments like this that Dom worries he’s working too much. Sometimes he feels overwhelmed. Like when his mum calls and she needs him and his head’s full. Or when his 11-year-old’s being an 11-year-old and needs his support too.

He’s always worked a lot, though. You might know him as the guy who founded Street Feast. He started it on his own: directed the promo videos, printed off the reserved signs, built the big tent people sat under, found the vendors. And a couple of years ago he invested all of his money – even the rainy day savings he swore, swore he wouldn’t spend – into a business he was going to open in Brixton this spring: The Civic, one of those multipurpose rooftop spaces that keep appearing in south London.

Now it’s just an empty, half-finished building.

Of course, he wallowed in self-pity for a while. What the hell he was going to do. But then he remembered something his mum told him: there are always people in a much worse situation than you. He asked himself what’s the right thing to do?, he says, and he thought about restaurants in London and how so many had become about investment and franchising rather than serving people. Soulless, he says. Then he phoned up restaurateurs and asked whether he could turn their spaces into production kitchens.

When you’re at ground zero, you can make a conscious choice to choose a better path. Or at least that’s what Dom told himself. He built a team of 11 people, eight he’s never met in real life, and they started making food for people who needed it. First hot meals. Then recipe boxes. They’ve given out tens of thousands now and they plan to do so indefinitely. ‘This is not a badge-wearing exercise,’ he says. ‘We’re building infrastructure to make sure we can consistently provide. It’s humbling.’

Lockdown London
Image: Bryan Mayes

A few days ago Dom went for a long walk around his neighbourhood.

Haggerston. Hackney Road.

It was one of those hot early summer mornings when London’s buildings are reflective and the parks are full of people doing squats.

Shoreditch. Brick Lane.

He thought about what he’d learned in lockdown so far.

Stonebridge Gardens. Kingsland Road.

That you’ve got to find your own happiness. That your goals don’t just have to be for you, that if you look wider you might find a hole you had inside is filled.

Soho. Wandsworth

Who knows how the capital’s citizens will remember this period? Will it be through the shaming lens of tabloid clickbait; a mass of selfish people sunbathing in the parks, land-grabbing toilet roll in supermarkets, shagging, fleeing, not self-isolating?

If you’re so inclined, you won’t struggle to find examples of human greed and self-interest in lockdown London. You don’t have to look much further than the house DJ property developer who tried to evict Brixton’s Nour Cash and Carry, or the Soho landowner still trying to claim 50 percent of rent from the shuttered venues on its turf.

Or will it be remembered as something else? As a turning point?

You might be a Londoner who has always known that London relies on networks of support. You might have watched as the city filled with ironic pop-ups, hungry start-ups and luxury tower blocks, knowing that the capital’s foundations aren’t breeze blocks and cement, they’re communities and the links between them. That lots of us were getting it wrong.

But, around the city, those of us who once packed our lives so full of Negronis and brunches and small plates and barre classes that we sometimes failed to make time to say hi to our neighbours in the lift, let alone help them out, are changing.

It’s the same awakening Joshua had years ago. ‘My perspective of the homeless used to be that they’ve got themselves in this situation,’ he says, ‘That’s changed now.’ When he was a banker he spent his money on clothes and luxury travel but he’s realised that’s not what he needs to flourish. He was working to please everyone else, not to make himself happy or proud. ‘Each day is a new chance to make something of yourself,’ he says.

At a food bank in Wandsworth, Rachel, a volunteer, says that working during the pandemic has been tough. It’s much harder to help people when you can’t meet them in person, she says. And there are more people who need help. Job losses and furloughing have left people unable to afford food. Rising costs have meant people can’t do their weekly shop. Rachel’s talked to people who’ve had their electricity cut when they needed it for medical reasons. She’s spoken to locals who only have six slices of bread left in their cupboards. Demand has increased by 120 percent since last March. 

But so has support from Londoners.

Donations from the local community have risen so much that while the team normally give food for a three-day emergency they’ve been able to increase that to seven. They’ve got a waiting list for volunteer slots. ‘At a time where most incomes are going down, the amount of food and money we were given went up,’ says Rachel, ‘It could so easily have gone the other way. Everyone was probably thinking: I might not have a job, or I’m on 80 percent of my salary so I can't give money away. It's incredible to see that people are looking out for other people who they haven't even met.’

At the start of all of this, you might have predicted that the pandemic would cause arguments and divisions across the city – and across the country. In some ways it has. But that’s not how this story ends. Talk to any Londoner and you’ll hear tales of people becoming more connected to the capital, to each other. We’ve learned there’s strength in numbers, that survival is about more than just fighting for ourselves. And all of that has made us tougher than anyone ever expected.

How to help (and get help) in London during lockdown.

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