Recently leaving Central Station at 11.37am in Coach H of my Avanti West Coast train to London was a somewhat eerie experience. But not one inappropriate given how my London week would turn out. As we quietly moved off en route to Carlisle, I noted three adults sitting together, myself, and two or three other singletons in the entire carriage. First Class travel in my experience is never over-crowded, but this was something different.
In stops such as Lancaster and Preston we did pick up a few more passengers, but when we left Crewe, now the last stop before London Euston, I walked the length of the carriage and discovered that I and one other had it all to ourselves. Euston was at least approximately normal, but the underground Northern Line was another matter. At 5pm, with rush hour almost underway, it is usually packed. Today, all the way to Clapham South, there was never a moment when a passenger had to stand. At station after station, there were rows of empty seats. Eerieness was clearly the order of the day.
So it remained. COVID-19 continues to dominate life in London. Masks are much in evidence, but that is far from the whole story. It's rather that the presence or absence of lockdown and its consequences remains a constant presence. Early on, I had a notion to go back into the city to see whether Trafalgar Square or Oxford Street are still as unpopulated as television reports keep suggesting. But second thoughts – given that in terms of age and the virus I'm in the most vulnerable of groups – made me decide that wasn't a good idea. Then characteristically, one lunchtime I was driven through Clapham through traffic which was nose-to-tail in traditional London style. Where was lockdown here?
Again, going out most evenings, restaurants, cafes, and pubs, seemed to be exceptionally busy. On the Tuesday before I left, I had offered to host dinner for my son – whose birthday celebrations provided the excuse for the London trip – and a couple of friends. Accordingly, we drove around for almost an hour. But it was hopeless. Rishi Sunak's 'Eat Out to Help Out' at half-price policy has been this government's one unqualified success. Everywhere we tried was fully booked. So it was back home for a normal price carry-out.
When we did manage to eat out, the atmosphere often seemed hectic. The masked staff struggled to keep pace with the demands of their unmasked guests. It was as if the reality of the virus made it all the more important for a defiant good time to be had. Even the birthday celebrations had something of the same quality. There was no specific birthday party. Rather, over two or three days, friends or groups of friends kept arriving to wish Nathaniel a happy birthday, so celebrating seemed to have a life of its own. On the other hand, given there were no outings to the theatre, cinema, art gallery, or any of London's tourist attractions, over the week there were lengthy periods of absolute calm and peace. One afternoon, however, a friend called Leon arrived and proceeded to offer me the eeriest experience of the entire trip.
Leon works professionally in virtual reality. Having heard of virtual reality but never experienced it, I asked Leon to explain what was involved. He said he could do better than that and let me enter it. I had to put on a rather large pair of goggles. Then, in an instant, I was in a range of different worlds. Suddenly, under a blue sky I was in a forest of trees, almost feeling the rustle of fallen leaves under foot. Then I was in Antartica, gazing at great waves crashing against icebergs. A moment later, Antartica became Africa and I was almost within touching distance of a pack of lions, or feeling the spray from a herd of elephants playing around in a river. Giraffes were speeding across the landscape as, looking up, I was suddenly aware of a large helicopter above my head. It's difficult to communicate just how immediate and vivid all these scenes were. The virtual world was startingly real.
Leon explained he made similar films to order, recreating the reality of walking into a new school or gallery or any other kind of institution. But this is all the first generation of virtual reality. The second generation is much eerier. Donning a different set of goggles and having controls of a kind in both hands, I could create a new kind of reality unrelated to anything in the normal world. I could twist and turn and dance in this new world following the movements of a power figure in front of me. What it amounted to I really don't know. The point of second generation of virtual reality escapes me. But that it can be created at all is astonishing.
Easier to describe is a final London experience which if not exactly eerie was both unexpected and pleasing. In one of the calm periods I described above, I settled down with the next book I'm planning to review for SR readers: James Naughtie's On The Road
. James Naughtie is a name familiar to me as he had studied English literature at Aberdeen University when I was teaching there. Nonetheless, it was a surprise to see my name on p.37. Explaining all the circumstances that had led him to become fascinated with the USA, he mentions Andrew Hook's course on American literature of the 1920s. I hope I enjoy the rest of the book.