It took a few months after the last lockdown ended for my café to reopen. I practically ran there on our first day of freedom, then found myself with my nose stuck against the glass, like a little kid in a cartoon longing to buy candy after school.
I walked past one day, weeks later, and saw the light inside. I rushed in, got a coffee and went to sit at the back. I started crying before even reaching the seat. They weren’t sad tears or happy tears; I’m still not sure what they were. I was just relieved, I think – I’d finally returned home.
I’m at my café as I write this – it was empty when I arrived and now it’s full. It started raining an hour ago and people have been pouring in ever since. They’re young and old; alone, in couples or in groups; well-heeled or quite obviously down on their luck. They’re just people.
I’ve got to know some of the other regulars since becoming one myself about five years ago. There’s a pensioner who likes to go to the seaside by himself and a lecturer who gets frustrated marking essays and a poet with a sweet kid and a very tall man who clearly loves his very small, shaggy dog.
We’re not friends but we’re not strangers – sometimes we know what the other does for a living, sometimes it’s not a topic that has ever come up. Often we gossip about the neighbourhood: which businesses are doing well, which are doing badly. Most of them are doing badly right now.
There’s an Italian deli around the corner and I’ve had to stop going because they’ve put the prices up. I try not to walk past it too often because I’ve grown fond of the owner over the years and I think he’s grown fond of me too, and it’s embarrassing for everyone involved for me to walk past and not go in.
There’s a new Venezuelan place down the road and I avoid it too, which is a shame because I’d started to grow fond of the guy who runs it, and I think he’d started growing fond of me too. He had to put his prices up only a few months after opening and so I can’t go in anymore.
[See also: Henry Marsh confronts his mortality]
I wonder where all these people will be, this time next year. There’s been talk, in hushed tones, about the café struggling financially since the pandemic. There was a bakery in the neighbourhood but it closed down a few weeks ago. It was sad and worrying; we all thought the bakery was doing well, but clearly it wasn’t doing well enough. What will happen to the places that don’t even seem like they’re doing well?
This is what I think about whenever I walk down the street and nod at the people I’ve gotten to know merely by virtue of living nearby. It is also what I think about when I see commentators and politicians talk about the Somewheres and the Anywheres, about the dreadful Citizens of Nowhere, the Rootless Metropolitans, the Smug London Liberals.
It has become fashionable to dislike us, to say that we don’t really care about anything, that we could live anywhere as long as it has baristas ready to make our complicated coffee orders. It is much better, they say, to live in a community and feel like you belong, to mingle with young and old and feel anchored in a place.
This is what Brexit was about, and maybe even what the 2019 general election landslide was based on. Let’s stick it to those Londoners; we don’t want to become like them. Well, that’s certainly what it felt like.
It just isn’t the London I recognise. Still, I fear it is what London will become if things keep going the way they do. If energy bills keep rising, the cafés and delis will have to up their prices and most people will not be able to go to them anymore. If inflation keeps getting worse, the people will stay at home instead of eating and drinking out.
If the rents keep rising, the people will have to move out of the areas they call home and they will not bother getting used to their new neighbourhoods, because who knows when they will have to move again. If all of this keeps happening, London will become what the people who hate it think it is like already: shiny but soulless.
I have no idea what we can do to prevent this. As with many other things at the moment, it’s easy to feel powerless. Maybe I’ll try saving elsewhere and go to the Italian and the Venezuelan again, and start ordering pastries with my hot drinks at the café. I can’t really afford it, but if money is spent it can be earned again. If a community disappears, it is gone forever.