A man who had lived in this street in Islington for most of his long life died of Covid-19 in the first week of April. His wife had died a few years before him, of a lung disease caused or exacerbated by the fibres she had inhaled decades earlier, as a young woman working for an upholsterer in the Caledonian Road. After her death her husband had rapidly become lost to himself, descending into confusion and wandering in the street, the pugnacious temperament of his youth as a boxer still discernible, but grown feeble in his dementia, as he accosted passers-by. His son had arranged for him to be removed to a care home, where he died, like many others this spring, frail and defenceless against the novel virus. He could not have foreseen or imagined the sparse funeral, imposed by the emergency laws, with which his presence in the world would end. He would have expected an old-fashioned London working class send-off like his wife’s, the pavement filled with floral tributes spelling out his name, and more (at hers, the florist had created one in the form of a handbag with a Chanel logo fashioned out of black roses) extending the entire length of the terrace of houses, men from the underworld in cashmere coats and sunglasses, a fleet of black cars following the hearse, and drinks for the mourners at the cosy boozer at the end of the road afterwards — had it not been turned into apartments the previous year.
Before coronavirus sent us home and kept us there, fear of incurable infectious disease scything through our city and leaving its population to bring out their dead belonged in history. As Crossrail tunnelled from west to east across London, archaeologists found burial grounds of victims of the plague. How near and yet so far these people seemed, in the images displayed on a hoarding passed by countless commuters into Liverpool Street station after the discovery of a plague pit there. Pictures of these close encounters between the living present and the anonymous fragments of the past are always strangely moving — whether of ancient Egyptian mummified bodies as they slide into modern medical scanning machines, or of a man in a diving suit of 1961 holding a skull of one of the people drowned in Stockholm harbour on the Swedish ship Vasa in 1628, or of the men and women dressed for Crossrail’s construction sites in hard helmets and fluorescent jackets, raking over the bones of the buried plague victims.
In the second week of March, as rumours of a lockdown in London only were spreading, I was reading Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. It suddenly seemed to suit the temper of the times. It is a pseudo-documentary, a work of the imagination, written long after the events of 1665–6, which had happened in the author’s early childhood. It was prompted by a contemporary outbreak of bubonic plague in Marseilles in 1720, and rooted in factual research. Defoe wrote of the days before newspapers existed, but described the fortune-tellers, astrologists and quack-doctors who preyed on public fear, with a striking contemporary resonance for the age when social media has extensively usurped the role of newspapers “to spread Rumours and Reports of Things”. Then, as now, the poor were turned out of work, and suffered more than the rich, and many richer people left London for the country, where they were not welcomed. Then, as now, the city became “a desolate place”, where, walking in the streets “if we had seen anybody coming, it was the general method to walk away”. The authorities then, as now, introduced measures of what we would now call social distancing, although they did not know what the true cause or vectors of bubonic plague were at the time.
Defoe’s topography was of a far smaller London, divided into parishes, in which the plague gradually but inexorably spread eastward from its “patient zero” at the upper end of Drury Lane, in Covent Garden, in the parish of St Giles in the Fields, to the City of London and the hamlets and docklands beyond it along the Thames. Bills of mortality for each parish recorded its increase and spread. Although they are much changed, the scale and streets of Defoe’s London are still perceptible and his narrator’s footsteps can easily be traced. The penultimate weekend before lockdown, I walked from Bunhill Fields, where Defoe himself is buried, to the Museum of London and its display of artefacts from the Plague Year, and then across London Wall to Aldgate, where the fictional narrator of the journal lived. It was still late winter and cold, with only a little early blossom on the trees. The small branch of Tesco in Houndsditch — an ancient and literal street name — had sold out of lavatory paper in that week’s surge of panic buying, something that Defoe’s narrator surely would have noted, had such a thing then existed, in his reconstructed reportage of the behaviour of the citizens of his contemporary London. Shortly afterwards, the paperback edition of the Journal of the Plague Year itself sold out, a fact that Defoe would undoubtedly have found most satisfying, as a leading enterprising commercial writer and publisher of his day. I stopped reading it, finding it unbearable once I too was, like the seventeenth-century Londoners he described, paralysed by the anxiety that accompanied the commencement of the lockdown, vigilant for the onset of the dreaded symptoms. Terrifying stories of people dying unattended at home circulated, together with a fear of contagion from every stranger’s breath as they passed in the street, a sense of the abrupt end of nearly everything characteristic of life in a busy city, and the endless sound of ambulance sirens interspersed with birdsong in the bright lengthening days of spring.
The topography of my world grew small, like Defoe’s narrator’s, to places within walking distance of home. I have never lived in the countryside, or desired to, but yearned as never before to be able to walk from my front door into the hills or to the coast. Walking westwards along the Regent’s Canal towards Camden in early May, I found myself imagining and wishing that in the eye-shaped space formed by the mouth of a brick tunnel and its reflection in the still water there was a glimpse of pastoral, of some ancient weir where swans were bred for banquets of medieval kings, or of green fields beyond the confines of the narrow towpath. There are willows growing aslant the lock at Camden, but no drowned Ophelia with her fantastic garlands of wild flowers. There is only a half-submerged supermarket trolley or some other canal detritus — although bodies and body parts are sometimes found in the canal.
T S Eliot imagined a drowned Shakespearean figure in a canal too, in an echo of the Tempest, in The Waste Land, a poem which I had regarded with absurd reverence in the sixth form at school and largely forgotten since. But its opening line, “April is the cruellest month” in its first section, entitled “The Burial of the Dead” was grimly apt for 2020.
A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank
While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse
Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck
And on the king my father’s death before him.
I thought of my own father, who spent his last years in a care home overlooking the canal, not far away, his mind and body diminishing with illness and advanced age. He died in the late afternoon of the September equinox three years ago, and I feel in a way relieved now that he did not live to suffer from the coming of the virus. After his death, we, his family, sat for a while on the balcony adjoining the residents’ lounge in the care home, as the sky turned red at sunset. Below us in the canal a floating hot tub passed, brightly lit, with cheerful young people sitting in it drinking prosecco, as if a millennial version of the mythological ferryman Charon had arrived in the footsteps of the undertaker to collect the soul of the newly dead.
In 1922, when Eliot wrote The Waste Land, the “dull canal” was still an industrial waterway, bringing coal to the gasworks. Now the gashouses have disappeared, to be replaced by the cylindrical luxurious apartment buildings and the refurbished structure of a gasholder encircling a small park. In fact, all along the canal, the buildings are like a shifting stage set of structures of their time, and all transformed — warehouses for coal and grain turned into shops and flats and restaurants, the narrow boats themselves homes for people who cannot afford London’s dry land, and hoardings around half-demolished buildings promoting more developments. The slogan “This is home. This is work. This is shopping. This is eating. This is living. This is us.”, absurdly hollow in our locked-down world.
When the Midland Railway came to London in the 1860s, it cut into the graveyard of Old St Pancras Church and of St Giles in the Fields. Dickens described its arrival in Camden Town as a great earthquake in the neighbourhood. A young Thomas Hardy, then employed in an architect’s office, surveyed the exhumations and removal of the gravestones, now stacked around a tree that bears his name. He later wrote a poem, The Levelled Churchyard, in which he described “the late-lamented resting here” as “mixed to human jam”. The mausoleum that architect John Soane had designed for his wife, and later himself, remained, and much later still its shape was echoed in that of the first red telephone boxes in London. Further on towards Camden, on the opposite side of the canal from the towpath are the studios built for TV-am, the first breakfast television channel in the early 1980s, a remnant of a jokey kind of architecture, with its gables still crowned with giant egg cups.
In the other direction, eastwards, at Kingsland Basin, within sight of the skyscrapers of the City, swans built their nest this spring amidst aquatic plants, and moorhen theirs on the stern of one of the narrow boats in the basin. As I passed by one day, a young woman kneeling in the stern looked in vain for one of the newly-hatched moorhen chicks which had fallen out of the nest and drowned. For a few seconds it felt as if this microscopic tragedy had quite overwhelmed us, a reflection and a reminder of the much greater one beyond us in the world outside.
I have made a recording of this blog, with images at https://vimeo.com/439502468