Urban Values

Covid-19 has rekindled ancient tensions between city and country.

Piccadilly Circus Underground station, London, 2003. Alamy.

The historian Diarmaid MacCulloch once told me, only half jokingly I think, that the London Underground was evidence of some kind of divine entity. Here were masses of people of all shapes, sizes, colours and creeds, submerged together in rapidly moving cans, who despite the armpits, sniffles and coughs, embraced a rare spirit of tolerance, patience, even good humour. 

I have been looking for a history that links underground mass transport systems and epidemics. Many of the places that have fared least well from Covid-19 have been the great global cities to which tube lines are integral: London, New York, Paris, Madrid, Milan.

I watched TV with horror a few weeks ago, by then safely ensconced working from home, as it broadcast scenes of key workers and those many in London who live day to day, hand to mouth, still packed into Tube carriages, their plight made worse by a reduced service as lockdown took hold. The strengths of the great diverse, dynamic, rumbustious metropolises are, for a moment, and temporarily one hopes, their weakness.

Contrast them with the poster boys and girls of the pandemic, such as Norway and New Zealand, who have coped ably with Covid-19, though even they face the challenge of what to do next. New Zealand, of course, has unique strengths in such a situation, one reason why it is the billionaire’s bolthole of choice. Like Norway, it is sparsely populated, largely rural, relatively homogeneous, but unlike even Norway it is an island far from anywhere in the South Pacific.

The appeal of the rural in times of crisis is a trope as old as urbanisation: think of Izaak Walton’s 1653 paean The Compleat Angler. The city, likewise, has been portrayed as a den of vice, iniquity, crime – and disease. Last month we saw how the Berlin in which Eric Hobsbawm grew up in the 1930s was portrayed by the Nazis as Weimar’s Sodom and Gomorrah. Those of us who value urban life should be wary of those who will use Covid-19 as an excuse to damn it, to question its strengths, whether they do so wittingly or unwittingly. If not, there will only be one winner. And it won’t be the good guys.