In the news · Notes from West London

Social Distancing

What is the furthest that you have ever been from every other human being in the world? I’m being literal here, asking about geographical distance rather than anything metaphorical.

Coronavirus (the COVID-19 pandemic) is still the biggest news story on the planet. Over half of the world’s population is in lockdown, and social distancing is the order of the day. This suggests that you keep a minimum of 2 metres (6’6”) away from everyone outside your household. Here in the UK, unless you are a key worker you are advised to leave your home only once a day, for exercise or to buy essential supplies like food and medicine. And maintain social distancing at all times.

Over the last two weeks I have taken my 15-year-old son a few times to the cemetery where my mother is buried, a place where you can take some exercise and guarantee that you will be at least 2m from strangers. As I have noted before (in this piece for example) I visit my mother’s grave more often at this time of the year than at other times.

During our visits I have walked to parts of the graveyard that I have never previously visited. I have read headstones that I have never seen before. I have found two graves that contain people who lived for over 100 years, but none containing anyone whose life spanned three different centuries. The blue plaque in Barnes commemorating Ninette de Valois, which I wrote about in this piece, is still the only example I have found of someone who lived in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

Now that the clocks have gone forward, and British Summer Time has replaced Greenwich Mean Time, it stays light until nearly 8pm. The other evening my son and I were at the graveyard after 7pm and had the place to ourselves, until a lone runner and a couple of teenage girls arrived. At one point I was near the entrance and my son was at the far end, near where my mother is buried. There was something like 150m (165 yards) between us and I figured it’s as far as he has ever been from any living person. Even on our trips to the seaside, however far out to sea he has gone, he has been less than 150m away from me.

This made me wonder: what’s the furthest I have ever been from everyone else on earth? I doubt if I have ever been more than 400m away, and then only briefly, driving on near-empty motorways late at night. When stationary I have probably always been within 150m of at least one person whose heart is still beating. It’s hardly surprising. I have spent most of my life in London, and during my student years in Cambridge I was at most 100m away from other people, very occasionally, walking or cycling along the Backs late at night. When stationary I have spent most of my life within 3m of at least one other person.

While walking anywhere other than the cemetery we have found it very difficult to keep a minimum of 2m from everyone else. People dawdle, so you have to take a circuitous route to overtake them. People stand outside shops or on street corners talking on their mobile phones, so you have to step off the pavement and into the street if you want to avoid them. This is safer than it used to be: the roads are so much quieter now. But for real social distancing, what’s the furthest you can get from everyone else here in London?




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