There was a slightly feverish air to the weekend of 12 and 13 September 2020. The announcement that the much-vaunted Rule of Six would come into effect on Monday 14, coupled with the promise of late-summer sunshine, sent everyone out on a mission to enjoy themselves before the dark cloud of isolation rolled in once more. The new regime, stating that no more than six people can gather together, indoors or out, means that you need to choose your friends carefully, or if you have been blessed with a quartet of children who still live at home, you cannot choose your friends at all, at least if you want to see them in the flesh.
It’s not really lockdown, though, in that parents do not have to start homeschooling again (unless their child’s school suffers a big, classroom-closing outbreak – a few child-free teachers I know are thinking fondly of one of those, given the chaotic working conditions they’re having to accustom themselves to). Everyone’s also being told they must go into the office, or risk losing their jobs, if they haven’t lost them already.
Officially risk-assessed team sports are exempt, but meeting your mates for a kickabout in the park is not. Controversially, donning a Barbour and rusty coloured cords and going out with your equally blessed country casual acquaintances to shoot at unfortunate game birds has been given the government seal of approval.
‘We get the government we vote for,’ announced J, drily, when we were discussing this after early doors training this morning. Although club running is allowed under the new rules, the athletics track remains firmly closed, which means our club’s Tuesday evening training takes place in the surrounding park. This, to me at least, doesn’t seem fair to the other, more sedate park users, who may not enjoy having 20 or more breathless and sweaty clubrunners hogging the metre-wide paths. At 7am, however, you’re only likely to encounter dogwalkers and other lonely long-distance runners, so I remain in my bubble of five other women; we keep each other on track in a comfortably competitive way.
There was some consternation (salacious optimism?) in the media that the last weekend before the Rule of Six deployment would be some sort of Bacchanal, in which masks would be tossed to the four winds while people mingled in vast groups, spraying bodily fluids and partying like it’s 2019. When I cycled into town to lead a Secret London Runs Gin Tour I felt a little guilty for adding to any potential mayhem to the mix.
I needn’t have worried, central London’s still reasonably sedate. Inner cities generally are bearing the brunt of a general falling-out-of-love with The Big Smoke, coupled with an all-pervading national mood of bewildered hypochondria. Those that are sightseeing, eating out and visiting galleries and museums are booking ahead and lapping up (behind their masks) the unwonted physical distance between them and the other person goggling the Van Gogh.
I met my half-dozen gin runners at St Bride’s churchyard, and we jogged and chatted our way through 10k-worth of the history of gin, from 1550BC to the Ginaiisance of 2008. En route for the horrible history of the Gin Craze in the slums of St Giles’s parish, in 1723, I lead the runners through Old Compton Street, always a bit of a bunfight at the best of times. I once lost three runners in the crush there during Pride. When they finally popped out of the crowd, like corks from a Bollinger bottle, they were covered in lipstick and glitter from all the exuberant half-naked party people.
Let’s pause to imagine that now.
Old Compton Street still looked as inviting as ever, to me at least. No cars are allowed, and all the restaurants have decamped outdoors on to the street. Tables are carefully placed a metre apart, and the beleaguered waiting staff are behaving like Patience behind a face visor. We walked politely along the length of the street, masks up and hungry eyes assessing the lunch choices and considering this brave new world.
The Gin Craze, and all its ruinous consequences, fizzled out after a definitive act of Parliament in 1751. I can only hope that the new rules spare the recently unemployed, the new undergraduates denied Freshers Week, the worried well and the terrified sick any more misery and anxiety, and that it doesn’t take many more months of Covid Crisis to emerge with a vaccine and efficient testing regime to help those people who want to party mingle freely again. Me, I’d just like to jump on the Eurostar and see my little Berlin boys.