Yesterday I took myself down to London for the day. I wanted to go in January, but couldn’t find any cheap train tickets in the new year and didn’t want to pay full fare. Then the pandemic hit, and so September was my first opportunity to go. At the moment, London is very quiet. The roads are busy as a lot of people are driving rather than taking public transport, and some people are venturing back to work, but it’s much quieter than usual. International tourism is pretty much shuttered at the moment, which meant that the parts of Central London that are usually tourist hotspots are peaceful for once.
On Saturday Ed and I went to Oxford for the day. We visit Oxford a couple of times a year, and each visit is much the same as the last in terms of the places we visit and things we do. Invariably a visit to Oxford includes a trip to the Botanical Gardens, a walk along the river and down by Christ Church Meadow, a cone of sorbet at our favourite icecream shop and some time spent in Blackwell’s bookshop.
Just before 4pm I arrive at the swimming pool to discover that the university has painted new markings beneath the cloisters and up the steps to the front door in advance of the new academic year. For more than 100m, row upon row of neat white circles enclosing tiny feet and the words “stand here” have been stamped on the ground to help organise the queueing system before the students return. Six months into the pandemic, there are still moments that stop me in my tracks and make me feel like I’m living in a parallel universe or that I’ve fallen into the pages of a science fiction novel, and this is one of them.
On my way home, I cut across a silent campus for the first time since March following the freshly painted one way system that’s been put down for freshers’ week and beyond. A group of school boys from the local private school over the road are stood outside the law faculty building bouncing freshly fallen conkers and acorns off the concrete, blazers and rucksacks in a pile beside them, but there’s nobody else around. Staff House sits empty, the Friday Beers tradition abandoned for the foreseeable future.
Stepping down onto the canal, I glue my eyes to the railings in search of late season blackberries, the low golden light flickering through the metal slats and hedgerows as I head home.
It was in late winter as the vernal equinox approached and life as we knew it ceased to exist that the tape began to unfurl and snake out on the city streets before me. Yellow, white and red, usually shiny, always plastic, and hitherto mostly used at crime scenes and to control crowds at big events. At first, the taped lines were judicious and practical; marking out 2m for customers waiting in line outside the supermarket, illustrating one way systems in the shops that remained open, and encouraging customers to keep their distance from the tills to protect checkout staff from coughs and sneezes.
For the first time in over a year, I didn’t finish any physical books this month. It wasn’t because I didn’t have anything to read – I am currently reading and really enjoying ‘Stork Mountain’ by Miroslav Penkov – but just because I ended up reading a lot of essays and periodicals online instead, as well as far too much news and opinion on my phone. I’m trying not to be upset with myself for this, as I’m still reading, it’s just my reading list is mostly digital at the moment. Here is a small selection of what I’ve been reading. I also share links each week in my newsletter, so if you’re looking for something new to read you can subscribe to Friday Notes here.