London, writes Dr Watson in the first Sherlock Holmes story, is ‘that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained’. The quote sums up the thrill of a crowd, the excitement of being with lots of other people, of not knowing who or what you’ll see or hear. It’s a thrill that feels a very long way away at the moment.
The problem with arguing in favour of crowds right now is that the reasons for being in one — watching men kick a pig’s bladder around, dancing to recordings characterised by loud and repetitive drum beats, drinking alcohol in close proximity to lots of strangers in the hope that your proximity to one of those strangers will get even closer come the end of the evening — seem rather trivial when compared with the D word: death. But we all die in the end. Do we all live, though? At the moment none of us are. We’re merely existing.
We try to pretend we don’t mind, but we do. Liverpool fans say it doesn’t matter that their first title in 30 years was accompanied by nothing more than the tinny contents of Sky’s sound-effects library. But, of course, it does matter. They know it, and so does every other football fan.
You’re not a football fan? It doesn’t mean you’re safe: Neil Ferguson and Chris Whittyare coming for your crowd too. Theatre-goer? Twentysomething out on the town? Parent who wants to watch your child in a school concert? Tough luck.
Some of us seek crowds, bizarrely, because we want to feel alone. I live in a village in Suffolk. It’s small and friendly, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But sometimes — once a week or so — I need the opposite. So I head to London. I visit a city of eight million people to get some privacy.
The people-watching (in normal times) is wonderful; eavesdropping on conversations is a fascinating hobby (in fact, Alan Bennett turned it into a career). My favourite ever overheard remark in the capital was a guy on his mobile: ‘It’s gonna be an hour and a half before I’m in Romford, Matilda — if you’re gonna have a bath, have a bath now.’
Yet all that — the human zoo, where a million tiny dramas are acted out for your entertainment every day — is on hold. All because of policies (if you can dignify Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock’s irrational spasms with that term) which keep retreating from worry to panic to outright terror that people might ever gather together, in however small a crowd, for any reason.
As I say, argue this now, and you’re accused of ‘irresponsibility’ or ‘not caring’. The brave, difficult, mature thing to do, we’re told, is to accept restrictions to ‘defeat the virus’. No — the brave, difficult, mature thing to do is to accept that more people will die this year than on average. As a proportion of the population, not very many more.
If we do that, we can start living again. If we don’t, how long before the Whittys of this world decide that ‘three’s a crowd’ should be taken literally?
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