What It’s Like to Be in London Right Now


In our Windows on the World series, we ask Canadians living abroad to give us a sense of how it feels to be where they are right now. It’s a way to cross borders without leaving home.

Winter always seems to catch Londoners by surprise. As soon as the temperature drops, everyone realizes that single–glazed windows are the devil’s invention and that wearing a scarf over a T–shirt might not quite cut it. And if it snows? Stop all trains, panic–buy toilet paper and stop going to work. (This sense of fearful, baffled unpreparedness for predictable annual weather events goes for heat, too. Our office air–conditioning system shuts down every summer “due to the high outside temperatures.”)

March 5, 2021
A park in London during the winter
   Photo: Chris Michael

When it snowed in London in February this year, however, there was no fear or surprise. The trains didn’t stop. Nobody panic–bought toilet paper. And nobody stopped going to work if they hadn’t already. The global Covid–19 pandemic had already done those things for them. Instead, my neighbours did the only thing most of us can do in this third and most interminable national British lockdown – they went to the park.

Camberwell, the South London neighbourhood where I live, tucked between much busier Brixton and Peckham, is to my mind a typical London area: neat rows of single–family homes; vast council estates; a main street that seems like it got stuck at half–gentrified 10 years ago... and above all, parks. London is a “national park city,” so called because 40 percent of its total surface area is covered in greenery. I have five parks within a five–minute walk of my house.

Snow covered trees in London
   Photo: Caterina Beleffi

There is mid–size Lucas Gardens, hilly and cute; Camberwell Green, an exposed and classically urban scrubland next to the main traffic roundabout, with a World War I monument; the small but charming St. Giles’ Churchyard, lined with gravestones and dominated by one of the city’s most incredible tree specimens: a Gothically gnarled Oriental plane; and my favourite, the hidden gem of Brunswick Park, which somehow squeezes two tennis courts, a basketball court, a coffee shop, a playground, a rose garden and an art gallery into a space about half the size of a football pitch. All of the green spaces are dominated, however, by the vast free–for–all that is Burgess Park. Because most Camberwellians don’t have gardens, the park’s open, semi–wild space is a key outlet.

So, when the snow began to fall, that’s where everyone stumbled. And I mean everyone. Elderly women holding each other’s elbows. Huge groups of Latin American dancers wearing colourful dresses and playing trumpets. Crowds of rangy teenagers throwing snowballs at each other. A hip twentysomething in a painter’s cap who had removed the trucks from his skateboard and was being pulled down the hill by his friend using a rope. And a pale middle–aged man wearing a kilt over bare legs. “This is nothing!” he said when I smiled at him. “Beautiful day!”

Snow covered rooftops in London
   Photo: Pornprom Lertwasana
A collage of eight different snowmen built in London
   Photos: Chris Michael

Everyone in the park built a snowman. Every single snowman was hideous. They had too many arms and dirty, lumpy torsos and nettles for eyes. By the end of the day the park was a house of horrors, like a Madame Tussaud’s pop–up for non–tourists. The snow was filthy and patchy from over–snowmanning. Nobody admired anyone else’s snowman. Regardless of the wonderful community volunteering that has come to define everyday Britons’ response to the pandemic, Londoners are still largely strangers to each other, and the snow didn’t change any of that.

But I liked it, because everyone else liked it. Because, for a change, the snow didn’t seem to surprise anyone. Covid–19 has already transformed living in London more than any adverse weather event ever could; it has forced us to look around at this beautiful city we would normally pass through at top speed, stressed out and furious, and actually enjoy it for a change.