I noticed the habit while I was living in Norfolk last year: people out walking smile at one another. As a Londoner, I was naturally disgusted by this but after a few goes of practising in the bathroom mirror, I started to get the hang of it. A few paces out, you brace yourself for a smile and, if feeling particularly bold, form the words ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good afternoon’ to utter as you pass someone else. When I moved back to London, I quite forgot myself and beamed at several people along the towpath only to be met with glares. Ah yes, course, sorry, we don’t do that down here. Until the past few days, that is, because I’m delighted to report there’s been a solid uptick of smiling and ‘Hellos’ in my nearest park. Alright, they may be more grimaces than smiles; the lips pull tight, the other walker meets your eye and you bare fangs in a wordless exchange that suggests more ‘We’re all in this together’ than ‘What a glorious day!’ Still, is this not progress of a sort?
All sorts of new etiquette rules are revealing themselves. These grimaces must be delivered from two metres away which means that I’ve started rambling through the park as if repelled from other people by an invisible force field. Dog walker ahead? I veer off the path and into the muddy verge to get round them. As little as three weeks ago, one might have been offended by this. Had I forgotten to put on deodorant or brush my teeth? Now it is merely common courtesy. In Sainsbury’s yesterday, I was trying so hard to stay more than two metres away from a woman with two gurgling twins in a buggy that my basket collided into the milk trolley and I nearly ricocheted straight into their laps. She gave me one of those hard-lipped grimaces and quickly steered her sons towards the yogurt.
On the subject of dangerous social interaction, I was asked out on a park date last week. A friend of a friend emailed me and suggested we go for a stroll. My romantic side was thrilled; I was Lizzy Bennet, he was Mr Darcy and we would slowly perambulate around the lake while discussing the fine weather. Then I thought a bit harder. In practise, a walking date right now means ambling along at a distance, bellowing awkward first date questions (‘Where do you live? I SAID WHERE DO YOU LIVE?’), before sitting at opposite ends of a bench and swigging from our own hip flasks. In the end, I decided this probably wasn’t essential contact and replied that love in the time of corona would have to wait. You’d never catch Mr Darcy suggesting a hook-up online.
No, for the time being I must be content with gurning at strangers while pounding the tarmac paths. I held my hand towards a small terrier that bounded over one morning last week but its owner looked furious. ‘Come away, Crumble,’ she snapped. It almost made me laugh. Pandemic or not, the frostiness of Londoners will prevail which means we’ll almost certainly slide back to ignoring one another as soon as this is over. In the meantime, don’t be alarmed if you see a woman out walking in SE19, staggering along and wincing as if she has trapped wind. I’m just being friendly.
Bookshelves have become the latest status symbol as we all conduct conference calls and Skype our friends from home against them. Last week, the hashtag #ShowUsYourShelves trended on Twitter as publisher HQ Stories encouraged thousands of people worldwide to take photos of these status symbols and stick them online. I was staggered to see so many with books grouped according to the colour of their spines. Colour-coordinated shelves, surely, is the sort of sight you’d find in the libraries of psychopaths? Others divide theirs according to subject, fiction, non-fiction, poetry and so on; others still chronologically while my mother’s shelves are alphabetical. I have no order at all save for a slightly strange corner which consists of biographies on Stalin, Rasputin and Hitler, plus the collected works of Alan Coren. No slight on Alan, his book was just the same height.
There are (a few) reasons to be cheerful. On my daily march around Crystal Palace, there’s a line of white blossom trees so beautiful against the blue sky they make me stop and well up. The clocks have sprung forward which means longer days. I’m going to bed before 10pm every night and…there will be no hen parties this summer. Sorry, sorry, I don’t mean to be a grinch but the fact that I won’t be spending any of my Saturdays drinking through a penis-shaped straw before going to a Bournemouth nightclub and pretending to enjoy dancing to 90s Britpop is certainly a plus. Should matters get really desperate, I suppose I might be amused once again by the novelty of a penis-straw. Right not, not so much.