One day last week we stood in London’s Bunhill Fields burial ground before the grave of Daniel Defoe. Of course his Journal of the Plague Year was the book that came to mind. Based on eyewitness reports in his uncle’s journal, it is a fictional account of the infamous 1665 plague that decimated the population of London. Now in 2020 London news of the coronavirus plague grew grimmer by the hour.
We were in London for an exhibit of my late brother Paul’s work at the Menier Gallery in Southwark. If it had been scheduled just one week later it could never have happened. By the last day of our visit London was shutting down. At the beginning of the week everything seemed normal, although there was much talk of precautions like hand washing and elbow bump greetings. Southwark was crowded with busy people hurrying to work in the morning and cramming into pubs at night. We even saw tour groups unloading off buses and herded about in gaggles. Social distancing was not yet a thing. One evening we went to the George Inn, a medieval building that is the only galleried coaching inn remaining in London. That means spaces are cramped. The courtyard and bar rooms were crowded with young people. We felt a bit out of place and vulnerable surrounded by the heedless young who were obviously not taking any precautions. After one drink we scurried back to our hotel and the rituals of hand washing and sanitizing.
We would never have traveled at this time but for the event honoring my brother which I could not miss. We spent much of our time at the gallery with his family greeting the devoted fans who came to view the exhibit. An opening reception on Tuesday evening was a great success. In between we ventured out to nearby Borough Market, Southwark Cathedral, and Tate Modern and crossed the river to Covent Garden. All the while our phones pinged with updates on the spread of the virus and new measures in the fight to contain it. We were immersed in our own concerns but aware of a steady strum of rising anxiety.
Our hotel on London Bridge Street was a short walk downhill from the Shard, a monstrous building that generates its own weather system. We called it the Shard vortex, a tornado of swirling winds that whipped around the tower but calmed as soon as we turned the corner onto Borough High Street. The whirlwind acted as a magnet, drawing us into a decision to dine in the restaurant at the top of the Shard. Our family group of six arrived at the entrance on St. Thomas Street and there a strange adventure ensued.
Now my husband Mel has a habit of creating security incidents by forgetting what’s in his pockets or his luggage. On one memorable occasion he had a large bottle of chili jenever from our favorite Ghent bar in his carryon bag. The security official at Brussels airport looked at the bottle of clear liquid in which floated bunches of red chilis, perhaps some innovative incendiary device, and promptly summoned a supervisor. The bottle was confiscated. Now we discovered that the Shard has its own airport level security complete with metal detector and X Ray machine. Five of us passed through uneventfully but gathering by the elevator we realized that Mel wasn’t with us. He had been detained. We saw a uniformed official brandishing a sheaf of paperwork at him. I went over to see what was going on and learned that they had found a penknife in his pocket. I heard the words “ten days” uttered by the security guard. “You mean he can’t come in?” I asked. “No no” said Mel, “go on up, I’ll catch up with you.” So we left him to his fate and stepped into the elevator, rising to the top of the Shard in seconds.
We found ourselves in a dimly lit vestibule where soberly dressed factotums seemed more like funeral directors than restaurant maitre d’s. They relieved us of our coats and a suitcase carried by one of us, of which more later. Then we passed though a narrow stone passageway lined by fonts of flickering underwater lights. All we could see ahead was another blank stone wall. It felt like a passageway in one of the pyramids, an entrance to some macabre ritual in a burial chamber. But no, finally we turned a corner into the dining room, its floor to ceiling windows offering a spectacular view of the city below. When Mel finally joined us he explained that his knife had been confiscated and sent to a local police station. It would be mailed to him in ten days, hence the voluminous paperwork. (We are still wondering if they will bother sending it to the U.S.) At this point Stephanie confessed her relief that the suitcase had not been investigated more closely. During the day she had purchased a toilet plunger to solve a plumbing problem at her flat. Not wishing to enter a posh restaurant carrying such a device she had secreted it in a small suitcase she had on hand at the gallery. This revelation caused a great deal of merriment as we imagined what might have happened if our group had been found with a toilet plunger as well as a knife. What dastardly plot could we have carried out in the Shard with these two weapons at our disposal? I could see the tabloid story – “Armed with a toilet plunger and a knife an international gang of terrorists held diners at the Shard hostage…” This was exactly the kind of incident that would have happened in Hooting Yard, the surreal world of my brother Paul’s invention.
I can report that the food in the Shard was superlative, but we did have a complaint about one of the drinks. My nephew Ed ordered an after dinner drink that contained a slice of orange peel with the name of the restaurant burned into it. Now I am very fussy about my fonts and Ed is a graphic designer specializing in fonts. We decided we were horrified with the font on the orange peel. Should we send the drink back and insist on Times New Roman or perhaps Helvetica Neue? Yes, the hostage drama would turn out to be triggered by the bar tender’s execrable taste in fonts. As we riffed on this topic I thought how much Paul would have loved this silly conversation between his son and his sister.
Below us the lights of London glittered and the deadly virus spread silently through the city.