The weather has terrible timing. All of last week in London – the first full week of 'lockdown' – enjoyed consistent sunshine and a steadily increasing temperature. This made what I've dubbed my #dailypermittedexercise (or rather, daily permitted external exercise) the highlight of working from home. On the Monday, I bought a new bicycle in Leyton to replace the late lamented Brompton, then relaxed at the nearby 17th-century St Mary's parish church which, like many churches in East London, was adjoined by a row of similarly ancient alms houses.
On Tuesday, I headed for Snaresbrook Crown Court in Wanstead, not far from where Alfred Hitchcock grew up. Designed by George Gilbert Scott as an orphanage in 1843, it was opened by Leopold I of Belgium and is now the UK's busiest crown court. I saw hardly anyone, although a jobsworth told me off for taking a photograph of the exterior. On Wednesday I headed to Tottenham, where I stumbled across another ancient church, All Hallows' (parts of which date back to the 14th century). One overgrown memorial recorded a local who had, exotically, been born in Tottenham but died in Paris.
Thursday's excursion was the high point, an extended cycle – though I now see they're supposed to be no more than about 45 minutes – around the Walthamstow Wetlands, a massive open space punctuated with the detritus of old East London Waterworks Company (ELWC) buildings and pump machinery. Ten reservoirs were created there between 1863 and 1904 to provide an expanding London with drinking water – the Ferry Lane Pumping Station remained in service until the 1980s. Only certain paths permit bicycles, but wrongly assuming the usual rules didn't apply, I sloped off onto a gravel track. Within moments, a polite park warden (also on a bicycle) appeared to chastise me and direct me back to a harder surface. It felt oddly reassuring.
More first-world problems. Before all of this kicked off, I was in the midst of buying a modest property in Streatham Hill, South London. This was taking a very long time – how I miss the relative ease of the Scottish property market and associated legalities – but appeared to be grinding towards a conclusion (known as 'exchange' and 'completion') just as the Prime Minister began to indicate that normal life was about to be gradually wound down.
I told myself that we could get across the line, that as long as I was still able to physically move my possessions from north-east to south-west London and order a mattress, then the rest would figure itself out. Last week, my (excellent) solicitor arranged a completion date of Wednesday, although she warned this might slip into Thursday. My hopes rose, and then fell. Problems emerged. Lots of problems. The property (a one-bed split level conversion) included a share of freehold, for which the lease demanded a building-wide insurance policy and signatures from the other co-freeholders. The seller's solicitor assured us all this was in hand, although I never quite brought myself to believe her.
Then, with the deposit transferred and mortgage funds summoned, it emerged that the property's transfer deed was in New York City. Remarkably, it had been assumed that a 'print out' would do. But, my solicitor angrily informed them, it would not. We then hatched a plan for me to enter the property 'under licence', a temporary arrangement not unlike a short-term tenancy. Documents were drawn up, but never signed. On Friday, when it at last looked as if I might be moving, another problem emerged involving an eye-poppingly large insurance premium. Defeated, I instructed my solicitor to withdraw my offer after more than three months of fruitless negotiations. That same day, the Government announced it was 'suspending' the property market.
'When everything gets back to normal' is a phrase I've come to associate with the lockdown, while daily I adjust to what's known as the new normal. With the turbo-charged stress of attempting to buy a property and move house during an international crisis gone, this has involved immeasurably better sleep and an increasing appreciation of a much slower pace of existence. I'm happiest while busy, most content with too much rather than too little to do, so it has been quite an adjustment to make.
After only a week, I've become a news junkie who has stopped watching the news, a forward planner who now takes one day at a time, and a morning coffee addict who doesn't miss it at all (actually that's only half true; I've just ordered an 'AeroPress'). Just as the Queen is now conducting her weekly 'audience' with the Prime Minister via (a very old-fashioned) telephone, swathes of normally face-to-face contact has gradually moved online. With work matters this is de rigour, less so with social contact. Last week, I had my first virtual drink with a Kiwi friend in Greenwich (though my wine was Australian), as well as coffee with a colleague which didn't involve any coffee.
It's clear to me that habits are changing more generally too. Take the response to my first London diary in last week's Scottish Review
. Usually I'd get a couple of likes on social media and perhaps a text message or two, but on this occasion I received long, thoughtful emails and kind remarks from both friends and family. A few weeks ago, most would have quickly scrolled through the article and moved on; now there's ample time to read things slowly and even provide feedback. That's one new habit I hope survives 'when everything gets back to normal'.