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The Year of Living Distantly: The Comfort of Strangers

Peter Jukes explores the melancholy emptiness of city centres during the COVID-19 lockdowns and wonders whether the invisible cities of social media will ever become civilised or inhabitable

Wandering along the northbank of the Thames in central London. Photo: via Peter Jukes

The Year of Living DistantlyThe Comfort of Strangers

Peter Jukes explores the melancholy emptiness of city centres during the COVID-19 lockdowns and wonders whether the invisible cities of social media will ever become civilised or inhabitable 

It was the night before the latest lockdown in London when I shared a joke with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I’m pretty sure it was Justin Welby. He and his wife were sat next to me in a Covent Garden restaurant before it shut down under ‘tier three’ regulations before Christmas. Our tables were separated by perspex glass but, as I got up to leave, I couldn’t resist a passing comment about how great it was to be out and interacting with strangers.

The Archbishop and his wife agreed. He said he’d ordered Dover Sole for his main course. “Oooh, that’s a bit Brexity,” I retorted. We all laughed out loud.

(There is no suggestion, however, that the Archbishop isn’t a full supporter of Brexit and Dover Sole deny any wrongdoing).

This was a chance meeting during Britain’s curtailed seasonal festivities, but that’s the most painful thing about lockdowns and this year of living distantly – the loss of those precious brief encounters. Unfortunately, it’s precisely those places where infectious happiness can happen: a gig, a choir, a football match, your local pub, a coffee shop, a gym class or village hall, which are also highly infectious for Sars-Cov-2.  

How I’ve missed those adventitious moments. I almost cried when I went to my local pub after the first lockdown ended in July and just randomly talked to the pub owner and some of her friends. I’d spent over five weeks in self-isolation after a three-week-long bout of (what I assume) was COVID in March and April. After that, the only people I had physically met were a handful of friends, family and work colleagues. 

Of course, I love these known familiar quantities, but it wasn’t until the enforced tribalisation of my life that I realised how vital the unknown, unfamiliar quantities were to me; how much I relied on them for wellbeing and emotional sustenance. 

In public spaces, what matters most is those little acts of positive recognition from people you don’t know – the smile, the nodding glance, the opened door, the gesture of ‘you go first’. These interactions made me fall, reluctantly at first, in love with the urbanity of city life 30 years ago which I celebrated in my first book, A Shout in the Street.

I’d spent a year in India, six months of it completely on my own, and found the only way to survive was hanging around the bidi stalls of Kolkata, the cafes of Bangalore or the third-class compartments of Indian trains for long journeys, craving the vibrancy of populated spaces like a thirsty person craves water. 

People talk of the wisdom or idiocy of crowds, the capacity for groupthink and communal violence, but who talks about the solace of crowds and the meaning we get from feeling part of the greater body of mankind? There’s the carnival aspect of it which attracts us to festivals and sporting events. But it’s not just a hunger for numbers. There’s also the counterintuitive individual reassurance as we move beyond our known communities to a wider society of people who – although they may not be kith or kin – can still be kind. 

As Blanche du Bois says in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire: “I have always relied on the comfort of strangers.” This is what makes us citizens rather than denizens – the accordance of recognition, rights and respect to people we will never really know. 

Social Media and Invisible Cities

During my feverish COVID period this Spring, the hollowing out of the city was the thing that most distressed me. I live by a major series of railway lines south of the Thames and, in a normal year, millions of people pass a hundred metres or so of my sleeping head. Seeing the empty trains clattering by filled me with an unexpected melancholy. 

The one outlet during this time – about the only thing I could do while bed-ridden febrile and exhausted – was to get on social media and describe my isolation and weird COVID dreams of Barbara Windsor and Dominic Cummings (don’t ask). For a brief while, Twitter and Facebook – all those people I don’t know on social media – formed a kind of city in my head which kept the clamour of common humanity alive. 

I’m not alone. Travel on public transport in most places in the UK and you’ll find that most people, while physically there, are staring at their phones, catching up on Instagram or WhatsApp. They’re already in another kind of digital city in their brains. 

By now, the vast majority of the world’s seven billion population have left their villages and farms and become urbanised. The original portents weren’t good. London was the first great city of the industrial era, which, by the mid-19th Century was so big – as Friedrich Engels remarked – that at no high point in the centre could you see the end of it. Most of the literature of the time – Dickens, Baudelaire, Balzac or Dostoevsky – depicted modern urban life as maddening, leading to alienation and estrangement, pollution and ill health, rising crime and prostitution, revolution and social conflict. By the mid-20th Century, this had resulted in a great flight to the suburbs which has only reversed in the last couple of decades. 

I think social media is exhibiting the same dangerous, unsettling trends of city life 150 years ago. There is the same combination of privacy invasion and anomie: drive-by strangers attacking your reputation; the inappropriate self-exfoliations and nakedness in public spaces; the envy and the greed and the desire for recognition that moves from self-control to exploitation and supremacy. 

The crazy din of it all can keep you awake at night, the humming and clattering like some raucous virtual metropolis flickering on the screen. Social media really is a city that never sleeps, one that can make you feel the opposite of Frank Sinatra’s a “number one, top of the list, king of the hill” and something more like the bottom of the heap. 

Somehow, over 150 years, not just in European cities, but from Mexico City to Buenos Aires, Mumbai to Kuala Lumpur, that great urban experiment of cohabiting with strangers has begun to settle down. The COVID lockdowns have not only revealed our material dependence on healthcare workers, social care workers, delivery drivers, cleaners, and everyone else who maintains the fabric of our cities, it has also revealed our emotional and spiritual dependence on others.

As the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert wrote to his elegy to Warsaw after the Nazi and Soviet invasions:

cemeteries grow larger the number of defenders is smaller

yet the defence continues it will continue to the end

and if the City falls but a single man escapes

he will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile

he will be the City

Zbigniew Herbert: Reports from a Besieged City. Translated by John Carpenter

Warsaw survived and rose again, despite the best attempts of Adolf Hitler to destroy it, and Jozef Stalin to stifle it. And I have a hope the invisible cities we now inhabit online can evolve in the same way. We may not be materially present in those digital channels and networks, but we are affected by and involved in them, and unlike the broadcast mass media it precedes, social media is at least a two-way street. Anyhow, we can’t disinvent it. And even if we tried to get rid of Facebook or Twitter, someone else would create it. So we have to civilise it.  

It’s not an impossible task. We finally did get to tame those apocalyptic urban dystopias of history and science fiction. Raw sewage and then horse dung threatened to overwhelm London a century ago. Fifty years later, leaded petrol and traffic made New York almost uninhabitable. But somehow, through neighbour actions and city governance, socialised power and sewage systems, public health and increasingly environmental measures, we have begun to make city centres attractive. This was achieved through laws and regulations but, above all, by the soft enforcement of our hearts and minds – by internalising the rules we wanted to be treated by, and applying the same respect to others. 

As we in the Northern Hemisphere celebrate the winter solstice, in that ancient pagan ritual co-opted by Christianity, it’s no wonder we look to the warm hearth of company and the candles of conviviality when the outside world is dark. At the core of what we call ‘civilisation’ is the civis, the city, and its many derivatives such as civic virtue and civil society, which ask us to extend hospitality beyond people we know to visitors and travellers, refugees and strangers. 

The image of this invisible city burns brightly in my mind, like an old hymn or a faded blueprint. Either way, it’s a better place I once dreamed of and want to get back to. And always will. 

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