As temperatures nudged into the 20s yesterday on a brilliant morning in east London, one of Victoria Park’s management team admitted she and her colleagues had “been doing rain dances” in the vain hope of poor weather.
Saturday was the first day for two weeks the so-called People’s Park had been open to the public, following police complaints of people gathering large groups in defiance of coronavirus restrictions. The decision by Tower Hamlets Council to close the park was greeted with frustration and incomprehension by many locals.
“Closing this place just put more pressure on all the other parks in the area,” said Joe Thompson, a keen skateboarder and the father of a toddler.
“All they did was push everyone on to the canal path, which is really narrow, making it far worse,” said Lizzie Kempton.
They were among hundreds of people – families, lovers, strollers and runners – streaming into the 213 acres of parkland and taking advantage of the kind of summer-like day that must give Matt Hancock nightmares. The park benches were all taped off, like mini crime scenes, with signs warning people not to use them. Sitting on the grass, the habit that had originally caused the closure, was also forbidden.
“We’re asking people sitting down to move on because technically they could be taking up space where people could be circulating,” said the management team member, who did not wish to give her name.
But hardly anyone was circulating on the grass, where huge vistas of spotless green were untouched by human foot or bottom. Instead people were sticking to the crowded paths as they tried, and often failed, to maintain the specified social distance.
Avoidance of other people has become the daily danse macabre of modern life, because it’s no longer just a matter of good manners but also, conceivably, life and death. Where personal space was once a subjective concept, it now comes with a clearly defined two-metre radius.
“Everyone is adhering to it,” said Shahed Gulam, out strolling with his partner and their two children, but as he said those words a runner trotted by barely a metre away.
If you’re jogging anyway, jog round me, don’t jog at me!
There does seem to be some ambiguity or difference of interpretation about when this exclusion zone should be observed. Victoria Park has banned cyclists to try to lessen space disputes, yet alongside the nearby canal, cyclists, runners and walkers are vying for priority on the busy towpath.
“There’s a bit of a blurred line with exercise and knowing how you’re supposed to implement it,” said Jonathan King, a construction project manager, who uses the park to walk and run. “ I don’t think you really know if you can slip past someone for a second or two. But to be honest, there’s no other way of doing it, otherwise people wouldn’t be moving.”
“I kind of get a little aggravated at people jogging past me,” said Thompson, who was fed up with runners infringing the two-metre rule. “If you’re jogging anyway, jog round me, don’t jog at me! These guys are really puffing out, which is just as bad as a cough or a sneeze in my mind.”
Nonetheless, he had resisted the temptation to confront these invaders of his personal space. “Best to lead by example and avoid other people rather than shouting and telling them what they’re doing wrong,” he said. “No one likes to hear that.”
Despite the various government strictures in force, there remain large areas of uncertainty on the streets and in the parks, where a new etiquette is being shaped to contend with this strange and still new terrain of the lockdown. At its heart is a paradoxical and utterly novel idea of public solidarity: in order to unite as a community we must remain apart as individuals.
Social media accounts are filled with fulminating descriptions of the points at which that strained contract breaks down. And it can be hard to see the best intentions in others when your primary concern is that they should stay away from you.
“Most people have been absolutely lovely this morning,” said the park manager. “It was later in the afternoon that we were getting groups. That’s why we’re closing at four.”
Paris closed all its parks entirely three weeks ago. And last week it banned daytime jogging in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. So far in London, where the Covid-19 death rate continues to climb, the issue has not been about people moving too fast, but those who stop still.
Coronavirus park closures hit BAME and poor Londoners most
Running may have its critics, but it’s an exercise. Sunbathing, alas, is not – even if done in splendid isolation. Yet for all their fears of the draconian measures that might come, no one in Victoria Park was comfortable with the idea of telling others what to do. London prides itself on its tolerance, the ability of many different people to live side by side with minimal conflict.
As Robert Copsey, a music journalist who shares a flat with King, put it: “The thing about social distancing in London is that we’re all so close together all the time anyway.”
London’s parks are commonly referred to as its lungs, and now the city is under siege from a respiratory illness. Whether it can continue to keep open these vital green spaces will come down to how carefully their users can stay apart. The signs were mostly promising on Saturday morning, but a lot of park keepers will be relieved that the temperature is due to drop tomorrow.