So much has changed since the UK’s last lockdown earlier this year, writes New Zealander in London George Fenwick – but also, not much at all.
My bike got stolen the weekend before Lockdown 2. I’d been enjoying a last hurrah with friends at a local pub, and was three pints deep when we emerged onto Lower Clapton Road at 10pm (a curfew which, like many Covid-mandated life adjustments, had swiftly transformed from unfathomable fun-extinguisher to minor inconvenience). I immediately noticed a space where my bike once was, the cable that had been securing it to the rack now snipped through, curling outwards on the pavement like a sad, lifeless snake.
It was a poetic misfortune. Last lockdown, cycling had been a lifeline for my sanity. I’d only purchased the bike the previous July, and after weeks stuck inside, cycling felt like flying, a feeling made all the more fantastical by London’s emptiness. I’d relished careening down the A10 from my house in Stoke Newington to London Bridge, where the sudden silence in the centre of this chaotic city was both beautiful and unsettling. But now, with rumours of a second lockdown already beating Boris Johnson to his own announcement, I was suddenly wheelless. At least I could check it off my London bucket list. “You’re a real Londoner now!” came many replies to my call for sympathy on Instagram.
That was Saturday; lockdown began the following Thursday. My rush to find a new bike by 5th November exposed me to the bedlam of pre-lockdown London. I was darting around the city meeting sellers from Gumtree, using the Overground and Tube more times in a few days than I’d done all summer. I hadn’t missed it. The air still smelled stale down there, despite months of reduced use. The streets, meanwhile, were crowded with shoppers squeezing in their last errands, and the owner of the second-hand store where I found my new Carrera road bike was overwhelmed. “We’re an essential service! We’re not even closing!” she panted through an exasperated smile.
Daylight savings had already ushered in the dour reality of a 4.30 sunset, early darkness only accelerating the feeling of approaching calamity. Covid case numbers and deaths were on the rise, at one point projected to be worse than the government’s worse-case scenario. People were scared. I spoke to a nurse who told me tensions were rising at work as NHS staff prepared for the second Covid surge. The ominous mood was further punctuated by the crackles and booms of fireworks overhead, as Londoners ushered in the new restrictions with subdued Guy Fawkes celebrations.
But if a 28 Days Later feeling of dystopian emptiness was the sole reason I flung myself around London in search of a new bike, I needn’t have bothered. Lockdown 2 is nowhere near as strange and confusing as Lockdown 1. With schools and universities open, and many hospitality establishments serving coffee and alcohol takeaway, the streets are teeming in comparison to March. For myself and other young millennials, not being able to go to gyms, restaurants and bars seems to be the only discernible difference from the way we’d been living the past few months. If anything, this lockdown has been accepted, if not welcomed, by most people I talk to. It certainly felt well overdue, after weeks of Boris dragging his feet in response to rising infection rates.
Now that we’re back in it, comparisons to the first lockdown are inevitable and disorienting. So much has changed since the first lockdown and yet it feels as though almost nothing has happened at all. The seven months between March and November stretch open in my brain as amorphous, inexplicable white noise. Watching Johnson’s first lockdown announcement in the kitchen with my old housemate Laura feels like it was last week, but it wasn’t. Laura was made redundant and had to move back to Australia in July. I no longer live in that house. I am a different person now. (I bleached my hair.)
I spoke to one friend who said she was, in a strange way, pining for the first lockdown with rose-tinted retrovision. Back then, the weather was improving, and the first freedom returned to us was a London staple: drinking in the park. Seeing friends always happened in the sun, with iced coffee or cans of beer a considerably cheaper social lubricant than pricey pub pints. This time around, socialising means sacrificing our fingers and toes for a brisk walk during the few precious daylight hours we have, which evaporate faster with each passing day.
Grim statistics reveal a major difference between then and now. Along with a record 314,000 others, I was made redundant from my job as a journalist two months ago, in response to Covid’s pinch on the world of print media. Zoom meetings and “isn’t this weird!” Slack messages are now a distant memory. This time, my days seesaw between ennui and panic. Last time we thought lockdown might last two weeks, a month at most. It lasted three. This one is due to last a month, which no one actually believes. I’m enjoying the time off, living off my payout and freelance gigs for now. But when anyone asks me what my plan is, my throat constricts. Along with thousands of others, I’m staring down the barrel of one of the toughest times in history for jobseekers in the UK. I can’t access benefits on my visa; I have no idea what will happen.
But I am lucky. After spending my first lockdown with just one housemate (a lovely English lad with whom I burned through lots of films and copious beers), I’m now in lockdown with my boyfriend and his housemates, and it’s a queer sanctuary: cooking, wine, piano-playing, buzzcuts, bleaching, reality television. The impending dread doesn’t escape us; as it was in March, everyone knows someone who has Covid. Four of us in the house are unemployed, three having recently graduated. I moved to London to expand my horizons, only to watch New Zealand open up as my new home closed down around me. But at least I’ve got my bike, and good company.