The bounce back was not very bouncy. There were exceptions, of course. Like the queues at McDonald’s in July last year. A nation of fast food addicts certainly needed its fix. They stood in line for a good forty minutes, grinning and giggling like over excited seven year olds. Happy meals indeed.
There’s definitely a new civility in the air. We’re less frustrated about delays, less hurried and certainly more polite when we finally get our hands on our goods. Many welcome this new civility as long overdue, but the truth is it is born entirely from fear. Like badly berated schoolchildren we obey instruction without question, keep our toes tucked tidily behind the yellow line, and jump the instant the man in the fluorescent jacket raises his arm.
And look what’s happened to pubs. Pub culture was the very foundation of British society. It’s where workers and bosses, landowners and farmer’s hands laughed together across the froth of their beer, untethered by status or social hierarchy. Sadly, the bustling, beery, raucous chorus that was our local boozer has been well and truly throttled by hazard tapes, warning signs and perspex screens. Not dead exactly, just lifeless. Orderly lines of locals supping ale at a safe distance is not a pub, and never will be.
Orderly, civilised and respectful it may look, but that’s because we’ve been scared witless (or shitless, if you prefer). We’ve had the fear of God drummed into us and we’ve chanted the weekly mantras, bashed our saucepans and everything. We may pass each other and exchange polite greetings but we’re both thinking ‘He’s probably got it. Christ, she looks poorly’. Oh yes, the script for the Twenties has been written: Homo Trepidatious is born.
Now come with me to London Town. (We’re travelling by drone, of course, so hold on tight.) We are hovering directly over Oxford Circus, above what was once the mighty TopShop. It’s June 2021 and there are very few people milling around. The red buses scurry past pretending nothing has changed, but they ferry a scanty cargo. The Portland stone bears its scars of the amputated logotype like a bitter trophy of better days. Much better days. Nike Town is open and good old Uncle John Lewis is still there to welcome us, albeit in mask and visor, but most of his neighbours have moved out. Tezenis and Microsoft were the first to break the circle. Those shops that steadfastly remain unshuttered do so, it seems, in the hope that those better days will return. They may have a long wait.
As we swish our way down Regent Street it’s much the same story. Most of the passers-by are local office workers (You can tell by their pace). There are a handful of visitors and even a few sightseers, but there’s not much for them to see today. It’s very clear just how many tourists used to visit London. Brooks Brothers, Desigual, Reiss, All Saints, Ted Baker and Levi’s all gave up on their flagships last year. Hamley’s is frozen into a kind of hibernation waiting for good news. Apple, Burberry and Mappin & Webb are hanging in there, thankfully.
Curving into Piccadilly Circus, the brazen billboards dance poignantly to their dwindling crowd, for they know no better. Whirring left into Shaftesbury Avenue, past rows of homeless tents the damage is obvious. None of the theatres survived, though one or two have been cuckooed for private events. Even the famously irritating Trafalgar Square pigeons are somewhat sparse, presumably having abandoned The Smoke for fatter pickings.
But hardest hit of all is Soho. This is where I lived and worked in my twenties and thirties. It’s where I grew up, where I learnt how exhilarating the world of design and retail can be. Such heady, happy, hard working days. That’s where my old agency was in Soho Square. It now lies hollow and soulless. The entire city is riddled with vacant office space. Like a watery-eyed Ebeneezer, I can picture the hip young guys and girls pouring down the steps at lunchtime to sit in the sun for half an hour. And there’s one of my favourite bars, now shuttered in clothes of iron and chipboard. The deli’s barely recognisable with its white-washed windows, but that’s where I could be found at least three times a week, back in the day. So many of the restaurants I loved have closed, and all but a handful of sandwich bars remain to feed the lunchtime workers. A little over a year ago this place was buzzing with what felt like a billion bars boasting of a nightlife that would see you right through to your Pret breakfast. Surprisingly, some of the more robust brands have vanished too: Wahaca, Barrafina and Princi to name a few. Even Pizza Express pretty much disappeared overnight. It’s sad to think that here on Wardour Street is where it started its journey fifty six years ago. Only a couple of private drinking clubs act as vanguard to keep the Soho spirit alive. Just. It feels like we’ve returned to the 1940s.
I’m sure I’ve cheered you all up with this news from the future, but it’s time to head home now. I don’t like to stay out too long these days. London isn’t what it used to be for sure, but as Joni once sang “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”
Finally, I must say a very, very big thank you to the highly talented Jan Enkelmann for his stunning Lockdown London images. Thank you Jan.
Now please join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for retail rants, predictions and wry observations