Commuting in the age of corona is even worse than you might imagine. With Transport for London oddly keeping dozens of Tube stations shuttered, my sojourns into Westminster have doubled in length and tripled in discomfort. Yet despite the tedium and sweat, these weekly trips back to the office are undoubtedly worth it.
The new commute begins with a walk to the nearest next station, before donning a throwaway mask and latex gloves — hideously uncomfortable in the spring heat, never mind the impending summer. Trains are running infrequently, meaning a solitary wait on the platform for anything between two to ten minutes. To keep passengers “alert” (as Boris Johnson would say), the boisterous announcer interjects every few minutes to warn about social distancing.
Journeys outside of the rush hours are almost solitary. The trains scarcely have more than half a dozen people present. Everyone is eagerly observing the 2m rule and absorbs themselves in reading, listening to their headphones or staring into the middle distance. Compared to the rammed carriages of yester month, it is peaceful, albeit hot. The actual train rides are much quicker too.
The Palace of Westminster has transformed into our ‘new normal’.
The Palace of Westminster has transformed into our ‘new normal’, with all of the accoutrements that will adorn public places from the middle of June. The floors are peppered with stickers, outlining two metre distances. Plastic screens cover the coffee outlets, with cups passed through a wee hatch. The canteens operate in a similar manner while the formal restaurants remain closed.
However surreal and sometimes lonely this new workplace feels, the sheer joy of socialising again lifts the soul. We have become accustomed to the unnatural jollity of virtual conversations, intensely focused on a screen for hour upon hour and lifting a glass of wine in front of a laptop to simulate the pub. Within minutes of returning to work and meeting fellow journalists and MPs, the pleasure of human company flows back.
On my visit to parliament last week, I had lunch with a fellow journalist across two tables — the first pre-prepared food in months — and a coffee with an MP who left their home to escape family. We still have to make do with 1-1 interactions for the foreseeable future and it is all rather awkward. But I can assure you it is more fulfilling than any contact the nation has endured since March.
Spontaneity is what gives society its character.
What we have lost during the lockdown are those casual moments of interaction: the facial emotions of a friend, the happiness exuding from a relative seeing a loved one, sharing a minute or two with a casual acquaintance. Spontaneity is what gives society its character. Too much isolation has risked leaving us with little to talk about. The return of serendipity will enlighten our lives.
That is not to say the plethora of virtual tech has not delivered new experiences that could have a life when normality returns. Last Sunday I was able to enjoy a live streamed mass from St Mary’s Church in Hexham, Northumberland. Fr. Chris Warren has constructed an impressive live streaming set-up, complete with multiple cameras and angles that bring you into the heart of the church. With lightness and grace, his service makes for a fulfilling 40 minutes.
Yet however valiantly Fr. Chris forged an atmosphere, so much was missing. No congregation. No readers. No offertory procession. No hymns, with only a smattering of the organ. As in the rest of our lives, attending church virtually has lost much of its meaning.
Churches will reopen soon and Masses will resume, albeit with social distancing. Similarly to our physical return to work, the return to places of worship will transform our lives.
Sebastian Payne is Whitehall correspondent for the Financial Times
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