John Humphrys: Why Covid could kill off the big city dream…

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Why Covid could kill off the big city dream… and we should all be grateful

He was just what you would expect a New York cop to look like. Big and tough and chewing gum with his gun strapped to his bulging belly and a bored look on his face.

I was a slightly overawed 27-year-old who’d arrived in the U.S. for the first time in his life the night before. It was a sunny Saturday morning and I wanted to explore the city.

‘Excuse me,’ I said politely in my best British accent, ‘can you tell me the best way to get to Central Park?’

He didn’t even glance at me.

‘Buy a f*****g map, buddy.’

John Humphrys (pictured) explains how coronavirus might change the way people look at big cities 

I knew then that when I brought my wife and two small children out from Britain, we would not be living in this city. 

Instead, I rented a house 20 miles away in Irvington, on the banks of the great Hudson River. They arrived a few days before Christmas.

On Christmas Eve, I was flying south to report on a massive earthquake in Nicaragua, riddled with guilt at leaving my family in this strange land where they knew nobody. 

I shouldn’t have. They were immediately adopted by lovely neighbours who treated them as if they were their own family.

This was small-town America.

When Watergate forced us to move south to Washington DC, I chose once again to live in a small town. In the battle between small town and big city, I reckon there’s only one winner.

Big cities around the world — not least London — have been having a hard time of it since Covid-19 went on its rampage. Behind every death lies a personal tragedy.

Cities like London (pictured) have been struggling since the coronavirus pandemic began

Yet Covid is destroying not only life, but the way we live. And perhaps we should not fear those changes but welcome them.

Throughout history, cities have been a magnet. From the late 18th century, people have been abandoning the land and the villages where they were brought up, to find fortune in the big cities of the new industrial revolution, like Birmingham and Manchester. But it was never a bed of roses.

As the great novelists tell us, many ended up in slums with their hideous overcrowding, their violent crime and their susceptibility to disease. 

Yet they kept coming. And no city exerted more pulling power than London.

In modern times, the new arrivals have been mostly young people drawn to the bright lights. Keen to get on and keen to escape the narrowness of provincial life. And keen to have fun.

Then it changed again. Immigrants arrived to fill the jobs at the sharp end of the service economy. They worked in social care and the NHS. Waiters and hotel staff now had foreign accents.

And the rich came, too. The changing skyline screamed out that this was becoming the financial capital of the world. 

A little over a year ago, the financial services sector contributed a massive £132 billion to the economy of the nation. Roughly half was generated in London.

We don’t yet know what effect the pandemic will have on that financial powerhouse. We do know how it’s affecting those who work in it. As I write, their offices — and thousands more — are empty.

Working remotely began as necessity, but is now becoming a choice. Many company owners are re-examining their leases and asking: what are our vastly expensive offices actually for?

Technology is changing everything. And this is just the beginning. Quantum computers are already being developed. You need to be a physicist even to begin to understand what they do, and I’m not. But they will make today’s supercomputers look like children’s toys.

Mark Zuckerberg, in a rare interview this week, revealed his plans to have half of Facebook’s staff working from home in less than ten years. He called it ‘fundamentally changing our culture’. 

Mark Zuckerberg (pictured) highlighted how change can always happen in society when he announced that he wants half of his Facebook staff to be working from home in ten years

Where Facebook leads, others will surely follow. Twitter already has.

And Covid has given this revolution the motivation it needed. Cities equal crowds. Crowds spread infection. 

And it’s not a straightforward, linear equation. The theoretical physicist, Geoffrey West, has shown that as cities grow, the ‘hazards’ they pose grow at a greater rate — not just the spread of infections but crime, especially violent crime. So if a city doubles in size, the risk more than doubles.

Perhaps a new Charles Dickens will emerge to bring home to us quite how dreadful conditions can be in Covid London beyond the bright lights and the comfortable homes, like mine, on pleasant parks.

Perhaps Covid will make those at the bottom end of the social and economic ladder wonder whether the city game is really worth the candle.

Perhaps Covid, combined with the digital revolution, will finally finish what began with the industrial revolution.

Without social life, London loses its lustre and many will be escaping to the countryside

It is not just the poor who may be having second thoughts. Samuel Johnson wrote: ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’ Not these days there isn’t.

Even for the middle classes, the indulgences have disappeared. The theatres, the opera, the galleries, the museums, the fashionable restaurants. All closed. And when eventually they open, will they still retain their allure if their patrons are treated as potential lepers?

London without social life loses its lustre. No wonder the wealthy have decamped to the countryside.

Like millions of others, I escaped last weekend. I rested after running through glorious woodland that gave way to pastures full of grazing sheep, their mischievous lambs trotting around, a lone hare spotting me and loping off towards the distant hills. 

Everything bathed in the morning sun. I was 50 miles from London. An hour’s drive away. A century away.

Those forced to live in the polluted mean streets of a big city like London often dream of the rural idyll, and the response of governments to this pandemic has focused many minds on alternatives. 

Commuting is not just boring and wasteful. Now, it can also be life-threatening.

Why not build communities where we can afford to live, and where social divisions are not as extreme as they are in the capital?

Take away the power of the financial services, and much that it dictated begins to wither. Once cities lose their economic function, they go into slow decline. 

Ask Liverpool. It is a wonderful city, but 100 years ago it was the greatest port in the world and the world flocked to it.

Liverpool used to be the greatest port in the world – the way the city has declined in value shows that big cities can be doomed

But can cities really be doomed? Perhaps they will adapt to dangers like Covid. London looks as if it may have the better of it for now, and yet the Mayor is cautious about lifting the lockdown.

And anyway, a pandemic changes the psychology of a city. It’s not just the disease that makes crowds potentially so unappealing. Cities are uniquely vulnerable to many other threats.

When the Cold War ended in 1989, I asked the head of MI6 where the next greatest threat to our way of life might come from. He did not hesitate. Cyber warfare. It seemed fanciful then. It seems prophetic now.

A hostile country, or even some maniac loner, might well bring our economy to a juddering halt by hacking into the essential computer systems that keep it running.

The cities would fall first. And then the ‘crowd’ could very easily turn in on itself. We would not be competing for toilet rolls but fighting for food.

In short, the calculus of city living is undergoing great changes. No one knows where they will lead, but if it ultimately loses its appeal, would that be such a bad thing?

Those outside London and other big cities — fed up with being called ‘provincial’ — might rejoice to see the end of city bragging. A provincial nation might be better prepared for a pandemic.

Those who live away from London might just enjoy everyone not bragging about the big cities 

Look at Germany: its biggest city, Berlin, is a third the size of London. One consequence of Covid here could be a resurgent local government.

And maybe those who sneer at ‘the suburbs’ from their metropolitan ivory towers might envy them instead. Especially when there’s no need to spend thousands commuting to the office. Imagine, too, what it will do to house prices.

Both Theresa May and Boris Johnson have talked about ‘rebalancing the country’.

They may not have chosen this new path, but it may lead there. And given how all politicians love a slogan, let me suggest one.

If you love life, leave London.

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JOHN HUMPHRYS: Coronavirus presents very difficult waters

JOHN HUMPHRYS: I know I’m among the vulnerable group for coronavirus, but just don’t believe all lives are equal

  • Coronavirus symptoms: what are they and should you see a doctor?

We are all preparing for CV-Day in our own ways. That’s the day when the virus reaches its peak and the phoney war is over. 

The last real phoney war began when we declared war on Germany and it ended when the Germans invaded France and the Low Countries in 1940. 

It took another five years to win the war — but at least the enemy was visible. We knew what had to be done and we did it. 

For a start, how dare we dump nine million individual human beings into a box labelled ‘the elderly’ with all that implies. It is both inane and offensive. It’s not the same as referring to ‘teenagers’ collectively. A woman is pictured above wearing a face mask [File photo]

Or, rather, our parents and grandparents did it. This time we don’t have field marshals in underground war rooms poring over maps and troop movements. 

It’s you and me in our kitchens wondering whether it’s safe to invite the neighbours in for a cuppa.

Or maybe whether that niggling little cough you heard coming from over the garden wall means it’s time to trigger the evacuation plans and escape to the country. 

Unless you’re already in the country, of course. I’ve already completed my own preparations. They consist of a notice in a transparent plastic envelope which will be nailed to my front gate at roughly six o’clock every morning. 

The notice will be addressed to ‘Whomsoever Is Charged With ­Enforcing the Mandatory SelfIsolation Order’. 

It will say: ‘The owner of this property is within the age bracket that requires his compulsory self-isolation. He is not at home and therefore not self-isolating in the accepted sense of the phrase. If you wish to enforce the regulation, you will find him running around the park. He is happy to obey the order. But you’ll have to catch him first!’ I hear you tut-tutting. 

These are very difficult waters but, of course, the older we get the more we become reconciled to our own mortality [File photo]

This is no time for flippancy, you say. Well, maybe not. But tell me what’s wrong with my plan — apart from the fact that it’s pretty limited in its ambition. 

Am I harming anyone by running round a deserted park? Patently not. Is it good for me? Obviously. I’ve been doing a daily run for 40-odd years and, apart from a few colds, I’ve never had a day’s illness. At the very least it has done me no harm. 

Yes, I realise that I’m tempting providence, and by the time you read these words I may be lying on my sick bed having been struck down by the virus which is planning to make its malign presence felt even as I type. 

It may even turn out to be my death bed. Too morbid for your taste? I’m sorry if I sound a bit belligerent but, like many others of my generation, I’ve had a bellyful of the ways in which society tends to caricature and often patronise the elderly. 

For a start, how dare we dump nine million individual human beings into a box labelled ‘the elderly’ with all that implies. It is both inane and offensive. It’s not the same as referring to ‘teenagers’ collectively. 

Their age group spans six years. The so called ‘elderly’ span 40 years or even a bit longer. It’s an attitude that leads to road safety planners portraying older people as bent-over, doddery creatures leaning heavily on a stick. 

I see no protests on university campuses about that particular affront to the dignity of a very large section of society who are perfectly capable of crossing a road — with or without a stick. I wonder why. 

One of the many bad things about coronavirus is that it has seriously set back the cause of those noble freedom fighters in the OPLF (Older People’s Liberation Front) just when there were signs of progress. 

Confession time: the OPLF does not exist outside my imagination, because in so many respects older people have been doing very well without it. One measure is the survival rate. 

In 2018, for the first time in history, persons aged 65 or above outnumbered children under five years of age globally. You might ask who would want to live for ever when, as everyone knows, horrible diseases await us — the most horrible of which, in my view, is dementia. 

Am I harming anyone by running round a deserted park? Patently not. Is it good for me? Obviously. I’ve been doing a daily run for 40-odd years and, apart from a few colds, I’ve never had a day’s illness [File photo]

Surveys show that most people think if we live long enough we will eventually get dementia or Alzheimer’s. Well, they are wrong. Only one in six people over 80 have dementia and many never get it. 

And in several countries — including our own — the risk of getting it is falling. It’s a fifth lower than it was 20 years ago. 

Those encouraging facts and many, many more are contained in a brilliant book written by Camilla Cavendish, who was director of policy for David Cameron when he was Prime Minister and is now a member of the House of Lords. 

It’s called Extra Time, and she makes the point that it’s not old age that’s getting longer. It’s middle age. In England, the proportion of over-65s with any kind of impairment has been falling since the end of the last century. 

I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania when I was in my mid-60s and vividly remember a young Scandinavian soldier just ahead of me on the final ascent. He was 6ft-plus of lean muscle and enviable self-confidence — until he suddenly keeled over.

As he was loaded on to a stretcher to be taken back to base camp, my guide told me older climbers like me were often better able to cope with the thin air at around 20,000ft than super-fit youngsters. 

I talked about getting old this week to Dame Judi Dench, our greatest living actor, for an interview on Classic FM. She’s 85 and she has yet another new film coming out: Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

She worries about only one thing: her next job. But now ‘the elderly’ must stay indoors in isolation — and perhaps for a very long time to come. There is, of course, a sound biological reason for it. 

Our cells age and the older we get the more difficulties they face in dividing and renewing themselves. And that means it’s more difficult to fight viral infections. But not impossible. 

And it remains the case that the great majority of those who have died were already ill. Some very seriously ill. It is a new experience for me to be the object of concern. 

It does not sit well with my old status at the BBC of Rottweiler in ­Residence. And I have mixed feelings over the sacrifices being made for my generation and above. 

Many young people will suffer if the economy is destroyed. But it’s not that I view the risk of death with equanimity. Quite the opposite. 

Surveys show that most people think if we live long enough we will eventually get dementia or Alzheimer’s. Well, they are wrong. Only one in six people over 80 have dementia and many never get it [File photo]

I’m having a wonderful life for all sorts of reasons: wonderful children and grandchildren; a wonderful partner; great friends. And even a new career. But there are benign aspects of the virus that help outweigh some of its terrors: a tiny number of children and young people have been affected by it. 

And let’s not have any of that nonsense about all lives being equal in the sight of God or whatever. They’re not. 

Even our saintly NHS relies on what are euphemistically called ‘quality-adjusted’ life years based on the length and quality of life to help medics decide who gets expensive treatment. 

All of this makes me more philosophical about my fate. These are very difficult waters but, of course, the older we get the more we become reconciled to our own mortality.

When I make my decision to go for my run, I am aware of what T.S. Eliot described in his poem Whispers Of Immortality as the ‘skull beneath the skin’. 

This week, the Government has forced us to confront our age. I have done so in flesh but also in spirit.

The public may have been exhorted by our leaders to think of the over 70s, but I am more concerned for the future generations. 

I reckon the OPLF would have coped with this crisis. Perhaps it’s time to resuscitate it.

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