In a time of social distancing, I’ve never felt more urban closeness. When out and about on rationed runs and supermarket sweeps, the city provides a metropolitan hug through its reassuring temporality, its knowing smiles that it’s seen it all before. As ever, its landscape offers memories by the meter, but it’s only moment by moment in motion that you find out what’s going to be on today’s memory menu.
Only just shifting my body from cooped up to cardio, I dip left, following my shoulder’s preferential pulling for a more tranquil backstreet. With the seamless segue of a dream, opening up in front of me in a pavement panorama is my old school sports pitch. Its green glass glistens in the tantalizing spring sunlight, emanating an ethereal quality from being unusually untouched. I can feel my feet drawn towards the pitches, transporting me back to those halcyon days when nothing mattered more than the next game for the Under 14Bs, my trainers morphing into my new boots for the new season.
At a time when we can’t play any sports, the sporting highlight reel that begins playing across my personal projector screen appears particularly high definition, like it’s 15 minutes into the game rather than 15 years later. I can’t help but smile as I relive my winning last minute goal off the bench across our arch rivals, a flukey shot only just in off the post, which somehow still remains a screamer in my mind. It feels simultaneously consigned to the past but also in that space forever, commemorated by a Blue Plaque that only I can see. There are many millions of these all across town for longtime Londoners like me, and they’ve rarely felt more visible and significant than now.
Casually crossing Westminster Bridge, I feel its multifarious roles all at once: postcard fantasy, general thoroughfare, terrorist target, bus route, illicit gambling den, photo opportunity, running track, al fresco hot dog restaurant. That one thing can be so many things seems to be a philosophical as much as an architectural wisdom right now.
The next thought that flashes full color into my personal picture is as I pass ITV Studios, that it’s one of the few buildings that can still fulfil its purpose: Phil and Holly still broadcasting to the nation from their riverside sofa every morning. And then a hard cut. I abruptly recall an interview there during my post university job hunt for what was a dream role at the time. Turning up in my one suit jacket as though I was about to be welcomed on Good Morning Britain rather than with “Good afternoon graduates”, London had felt particularly bright and beamy that day. A city of opportunity open for business. I’d had an absolute shocker though, one of those ones where you just don’t turn up at all, and had been thanked for coming and sent on my way after the first round, with that bitter smack of not having come close to doing myself justice. Right where I was running I had called my Mum to relay this news, unable to hold back tears. Today, the only tears are pollen-induced. My pace picks up and the feelings roll by with the city.
Savoring the slope hammering my hamstrings in front of the Globe, I’m reminded of quite how much London has seen in the times since people paddled boats across to the insalubrious South Bank for a big night out at the bear fight. I think of the previous plagues that it has now brushed off like a speck of dust on the shoulder of its favorite winter coat. Will Shakespeare was here, saw what he and the city saw. What he wrote about is still the same; London is still the same, but also changed unrecognizably.
I run past the ancient walls of London, once such a monumental marker, now, other than a Roman reminder, not much more than a sure sign that you’ve fallen off the pavement. At their end is the Golden Hinde, which may sound like a historical strip club but is in fact the replica of the ship Sir Francis Drake sailed to the New World and also the site of my sixth birthday party. I could use some of the sweets from the party bags now, if not so much the hook and eyepatch. Although those pirate bandanas could make handy improvised masks.
In the cities which are home, the personal and the public thus intertwine into a membrane of memories. Tower Bridge looms into view with such limited traffic that I wonder how discounted the fees to raise it to take a boat underneath it are right now. Can sailing count as your one form of daily exercise?
The Tower of London feels less like a prison than all the buildings around it for the time being, more of a regal running track. Staring at its deep moat of gleaming grass, the closest I’m getting to a swimming pool, I remember ice skating there with my girlfriend just before Christmas, heartened that seasons change. It feels as though as the city’s got quieter, it has itself got more reflective. A metropolis meditating.
It’s as I’m crossing Parliament Square that I understand one of my favorite reflections on a home city from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis in a way I’ve never got it before: “At least I have her love / The city she loves me”.
The city has sights but it also has sight. It’s seen it all before and bears the scars to prove it. This experience that feels so definitive and unprecedented will mesh into the urban fabric of memories, just like everything else. Of places and people and periods. One day it will just be another memory that may or may not occur to a juiced up jogger.
The city’s sense of humor remains, and it feels like having a laugh with me today. Having resolved to run until I hit 12.5 kilometers, this takes me to the meter to the same bed of knockout kaleidoscopic flowers I’d admired on my allocated shopping expedition that morning. I laugh at this joke, not just to be polite but because it’s on me. How often in “normal” life would a city slicker admire the same natural beauty TWICE in a day? I want to try to remember this but know that, like everything else, it will end up consigned to the vaults of the city’s inexhaustible memory bank.