My heart goes out to everyone who’s stuck at home feeling bored and worried.
I’m the only person on the train from Brighton to London. Usually you can’t find a seat at this time of the morning (10:42 departure).
The only people at the station were railway workers and a lone policemen who took a long look at me and decided I wasn’t worth questioning (I was trying hard to look as if I belonged there, hoping he wouldn’t ask why I was pushing a bicycle and trailer).
The ticket inspector looked unfriendly but wasn’t. He was probably just bored, as most people are in this strange time of the virus. I’m standing in front of the ticket barrier, wondering if he’ll open it and let me through without asking for my ticket. He does.
I wonder why the trains are still running if nobody’s travelling? I ask the inspector: “Who’s using the trains these days?”
“Key workers and fare dodgers,” he says. Where did this term “key worker” come from? Sounds like another way of saying Locksmith.
“Fare dodgers?” I asked, “What …?”
“People who don’t have any business being on the trains…”
I walk onto a vast empty platform, feeling quite strange, as if I shouldn’t be there. I’m expecting the policeman to put his hand on my shoulder at any moment.
The train is eerily empty and spotlessly clean.
We stop at station after station and the disembodied lady’s voice comes on and tells me where I am. Nobody gets on. Nobody gets off. There’s nobody at any of the stations except Gatwick Airport where I open the door and stare down the platform – and yes, I see someone; about 200 yards away a figure in fluorescent yellow is bending over a bin.
As we go through the London stations – Clapham Junction, London Bridge – where millions of people normally pass through every day, I see more fluorescent jackets; some look officious and others push a brush. The brush pushers look more relaxed.
I’m surprised Gatwick is so empty as I’d read in a paper that about 15,000 people a day fly into Britain, none of whom are checked for signs of the virus. Britain’s approach to the virus seems over-reliant on the private sector bailing us out: Boris’ hapless government are hoping that Google’s new App will save us; apparently it will beep every time you go near someone who’s admitted to having had the virus. But isn’t that going to make those who’ve had it into instant pariahs? The former boss of MI6, Sir John Sawers, said in the FT: “What’s being envisaged [for contact tracing] would go beyond what we used for security purposes.”
But I don’t let the ramblings of politicians worry me as there’s nothing I can do about the fact that the global economy has been shut down because of our insatiable appetite for meat. All I can do is observe things and, I must confess with a certain amount of guilt (shouldn’t I be depressed and worried?), that I find the whole thing absolutely fascinating.
Perhaps the most interesting thing that has happened is that a simple message – don’t go out – has been picked up by virtually every nation on earth and over seven billion people are staying at home. It shows the incredible power of the media. Some people worry that it’s a plot to control us, but what these people don’t see is that it’s based on consensus; if an overwhelming majority of people didn’t see the point of this lockdown there’s no way it could be enforced. Imagine if they tried to do repeat this trick to stop global warming, which is an even bigger threat than this virus, by banning fossil fuels – it wouldn’t get anywhere.
St Pancras and Kings Cross
I get off the train at St Pancras and see one or two other passengers emerge from what I thought was “my” train. They all wear masks, as do I, and hurry off. Nobody seems to want to talk or even exchange a glance. Someone checks my ticket at the exit barrier and, as I head along the grand concourse of shops, a policeman approaches me; we’re both heading towards each other like in a cowboy movie. I look ahead, going over my cover story in my head (“I’m going home!”), and he walks straight past without even glancing my way. The policeman looks like he’s about 16 years old (apparently, when you think the policemen look young it means that you are getting old).
The main road outside St Pancras and Kings Cross isn’t as empty as I had expected. A few buses, trucks and Lycra-clad men on bikes. Some sign of life.
There’s a bored-looking a guard on the entry to Kings Cross Station but he doesn’t ask me anything as I saunter in with as much “purpose” as I can muster up. There are about 20 people in the whole station, a mixture of “key workers” (whatever they are) and worried-looking passengers. None of us passengers speak to each other. The only person who’s friendly is an Italian station official who tells me the 13:00 to Edinburgh is leaving at 13:30, and not to worry about my reservation as “there will only be about five people on the train.”
The fluorescent clad “key workers” have a gruff banter between themselves. Truncated comments, jokes and gestures are communicated across the station in short bursts. I tried to follow what they were saying but couldn’t. They were communicating in a way that was bypassing us ordinary folk; easy enough when you consider that most of us are consumed by worry.
I find the experience of being in this empty station quite stimulating, almost exciting, but I can’t understand why. I gradually realise that it reminds me of travelling in foreign locations where everything is different – and therefore of great interest. It’s similar to the feeling I get when reading a dystopian novel, when all the things we know about our society have been swept away and a new system has been created.
I remember visiting the Bosnian city of Tuzla during the 1992-95 war; the streets were empty and everyone was hunkered down at home, or in trenches on the front lines. It also reminded me of Tibet in 1986 when there were so few vehicles that people would stand in the middle of the main street and have lengthy conversations. I’m feeling some of that sense of wonder I get when travelling in a place where the normal, western system of life doesn’t apply.
But there’s something else. How can I describe this modern station with scores of empty shops and all the high-tech lighting still functioning? It’s far too well-designed and clean to be in a poor country, or in a post-apocalyptic world, which is what it initially felt like.
Then it struck me; it’s like a huge art gallery which has a few bored officials making sure you don’t do anything untoward, and a handful of visitors who are staring with deep concentration at … the departures board.
The Italian was right; the Edinburgh train only has about five people on it. We all have our own carriage, and I sprawl out over a big table: laptop, papers, book, phone, charging cables, water, lunch. It was a brand-new trains made by Hitachi, the Japanese company that makes electronics. It has the look and feel of a brand new car, a high-end type. I’m in the lap of luxury. The only thing missing is the drinks-and-snacks trolley but I can live without that and am grateful for not wasting money on bad coffee and junk food.
I read my friend’s manuscript about Dracula (“the real story, ” he claims), eat yesterday’s lentil stew, have a nap and, four hours later, arrive in the capital of Scotland which is eerily empty. The only thing moving in the 1-mile sprawl of Princes Street are a few buses – and they’re all empty.
Why am I travelling?
Over the last week I’ve taken a bit of flak from my Facebook friends after asking what’s the best way to get to Edinburgh: train or bike (as in bicycle touring, with trailer and camping gear).
Many of those who responded didn’t answer the question but said “don’t go!”, asking why I plan to break the rules of the lockdown. Some suggested that I just want to go on a jolly. But I did respect their view and didn’t do what I really wanted to do – cycle up the east coast of England and camp on empty beaches every night. That would have been a jolly masking a valid reason to travel.
But I can’t blame them for giving me a hard time as I should have explained why I came to Edinburgh.
It’s quite simple; due to the virus, the flat I own in Edinburgh is now empty and I’m going to live in it for a while as I can’t afford to pay rent in Brighton and have an empty flat in Edinburgh (which is a main source of income for me).
The other reason is to live on my own, in other words self-isolate better. In Brighton I was renting a flat from my aunt and she’s in her seventies; every time I go to the shops I touch all sorts of surfaces and could bring the virus back.
As soon as the situation changes, and I get new people into my flat, I’m going to hit the road with my touring bike and trailer and do that east-coast route; it will hopefully be mid-summer by then and maybe the beaches will still be empty and there will be nobody to complain about a rogue cyclist putting up a tent where he’s not supposed to.
Postscript; when looking up the population of the world I came across this compelling website, which shows the minute-by-minute growth of the global population. At the time of writing, a total of 17,688,444 people have died in the world thus far. Two minutes later I checked the figure again and it is now at 17,688,580. If my back-of-the-newspaper maths is correct, 146 people just died.
I find that constantly moving statistic fascinating, but also rather macabre, and wonder if it helps put the corona virus pandemic into some kind of perspective. I think not.
If you haven’t yet got a copy of my new travel book you can get it here: Himalayan Bus Plunge — & Other Stories from Nepal
Let me know what you think about all this in the comments section below. You can also use this space to share your own corona virus story. How have you been handling it? How are you feeling? What do you think will happen next?