All cities are the same at dawn

(I wrote this for the TLS during the first lockdown.)

At around 10pm on April 3, the BBC journalist Dan Johnson filmed his drive through Central London to begin the night shift at Broadcasting House. The next day he posted the film on Twitter, speeded up, with Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy” as the backing track. On what should have been a busy Friday night, the car weaves unimpeded through an abandoned Whitehall, the vast emptiness of Trafalgar Square, a tourist-free Piccadilly Circus with the billboards lit up pointlessly, and the long sweep of Regent Street, its clean lines spoilt only by a few red buses and stray pedestrians. Belisha beacons blink, and traffic lights turn red, for almost no one. London is like a gigantic, unpeopled film set. In The Road to Oxiana Robert Byron writes that all cities are the same at dawn – that even Oxford Street looks as beautiful in its desolation as Venice. Empty cities are compelling because they bear the traces of our lives as inescapably social beings. Their silence speaks of the need for human connection. Absence makes visible what we usually fail to notice: our everyday life going on, like an orchestra without a conductor, while our minds are elsewhere. Johnson’s film received more than 10,000 likes, many people apparently finding it as mesmerizing, and unexpectedly moving, as I did.

Lockdown has laid bare the strangeness of the everyday. It has severed us from many of our routines, and coated those that survive with a deep glaze of oddness. A permanent message in the corner of the television screen orders us to “stay at home”. Every journey beyond the front door must be justified. A queue for the supermarket is elongated by two-metre gaps policed by upturned baskets or stripy tape. Once inside, we find that the shelves have been denuded of once banal and now treasured items such as dried pasta and toilet roll, and cashiers are shielded from us by Perspex screens. Freud would have called this the unheimlich: the troubling intrusion of the unfamiliar into the familiar.

In an English thesaurus, the word everyday is found alongside other words – dullhumdrumworkaday – which seem to dismiss it as unworthy of interest. The British prefer to look at their daily lives through the distorting lenses of irony and bathos, perhaps. In Germany, however, in the early 1920s, the critic Siegfried Kracauer began writing short essays for the Frankfurter Zeitung that gave the everyday the serious attention it deserves. Kracauer dwelt on the dead moments of city life. He saw how much of people’s time was consumed by queuing, commuting, waiting around in lobbies and labour exchanges, or the dull office work of switchboards and typing pools – mundane activities that, like Edgar Allan Poe’s purloined letter, hid themselves in plain sight. In The Salaried Masses (1930; translated, 1998), Kracauer argues that the lives of office workers of Berlin and Frankfurt are “more unknown than [those] of the primitive tribes at whose habits those same employees marvel in films”. We should rid ourselves of the notion that our lives are defined by major events, he says. We are “more deeply and lastingly influenced by the tiny catastrophes of which everyday existence is made up”. This existence escapes our attention because it feels anonymous and unowned – like a story with no narrator, plot or protagonist. In an essay on boredom, Kracauer calls the everyday “a life that belongs to no one and exhausts everyone”.

When I watched Johnson’s short film of London in lockdown, it felt like something, as Philip Larkin wrote of trees coming into leaf, almost being said. Everyday life had become briefly visible through the thick fog of habit. In Kracauer’s Theory of Film: The redemption of physical reality (1960), he writes that a film leaves its raw material intact, so its images look like “casual self-revelations”. This unstaged, authorless quality – amplified in Johnson’s footage by the fact that his dashboard camera had simply recorded the journey while he drove – leads us to re-notice everyday phenomena that “are part of us like our skin, and because we know them by heart we do not know them with the eye”. Film looks at the everyday afresh, with the unfiltered gaze of a child.

France has produced an especially rich body of writing on the invisible vie quotidienne – a phrase both more precise and more evocative than the English everyday life. (A character in Don DeLillo’s novel Underworld calls quotidian “a gorgeous Latinate word … that suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace”.) At the heart of this tradition lies Henri Lefebvre’s three-volume Critique of Everyday Life. Published between 1947 and 1981, Critique covers the Trente Glorieuses, the thirty-year postwar boom that transformed France from an agrarian into a modern consumer society. Lefebvre explores how a new culture of consumption promised to relieve the drudgery of daily life, tapping into the desires – for style, glamour, energy, abundance – that this drudgery failed to fulfil. (Jacques Tati’s film Mon Oncle, 1958, makes delicious visual comedy out of this promise, as the shambolic Monsieur Hulot wreaks gentle havoc in his sister’s ultra-modern, wipe-down, push-button home.) Consumer culture pledges to replace everyday life with lifestyle and public tedium with private pleasures. In the final volume of Critique, Lefebvre foresaw that we would one day be able to shop without ever leaving our homes.

And yet, he argues, the everyday remains. It is a “residual deposit”, a “great, disparate patchwork” that modernity “drags in its wake”. It is the awkward underside of the modern obsession with productivity and growth. Its tedium is unevenly dumped on the poor, but no one can wholly escape it. We will never break through the everyday to reach some more exalted plane of existence, for “man must be everyday, or he will not be at all”. We dismiss the everyday as marginal and boring when in truth it is unavoidable and freighted with meaning. It recedes from view even as it fills up our lives.

Lefebvre’s friend, the French novelist and essayist Georges Perec, coined the term infra-ordinary to describe the huge terrain of our lives that had become unseeable, like infrared light. The daily papers, Perec writes, “talk of everything except the daily”. Trains and buses only seem to exist when we are cursing them for not turning up; their absence has forced us to acknowledge them. As soon as we hang a picture in our house, we stop seeing it. We fixate on the exotic and ignore its opposite, which Perec calls the endotic. We sleepwalk through our lives and they unfold with the relentless logic of a dream.

In a series of essays, many of them collected in Species of Spaces (1974; translated, 1997), Perec makes inventories of his desk, apartment and neighbourhood. One piece records all the solids and liquids he ingests in a year. In An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1975; translated, 2010) he sets out to record “what happens when nothing happens”. Seated by the windows of cafés in the Place Saint- Sulpice for a whole weekend, Perec notes down everything he sees: pigeons grooming themselves in the fountain; buses running eternally through their routes; a man stopping to greet the café’s dog. Perec instructs his readers to do likewise, by taking field notes on the contents of their cutlery drawers and the way cars are parked on their street. He tells them to “set about it more slowly, almost stupidly”, to write down “what is most obvious, most common, most colourless”. By observing the world flatly, like “court stenographers of reality”, they will unearth the infra-ordinary.

It occurs to me that my own lockdown is a long, unwanted Perecian experiment. The pandemic’s distancing and constraining effects have made me look at daily life anew. I observe the exact times that neighbours take their dogs for a walk, the slightly over-elaborate way that delivery drivers step back from doorsteps, the apologetic nod that passers-by offer as they swerve away from each other. I have become an anthropologist of the infra-ordinary, watching the world around me with the pained, excessive attention that Perec prescribed.

Behind Perec’s seemingly playful methods lay serious intent. He wanted to show us that daily life didn’t happen inevitably, like the earth turning on its axis and day following night. It was a spell that could be broken, a collective dream of ordinariness from which we were free to awake. In the everyday, the French theorist Maurice Blanchot wrote, “we are neither born nor do we die: hence the weight and the enigmatic force of everyday truth”. Daily life feels interminable, uninterruptible: a present with no past or future, as inevitable as rain. With our eyes on the news headlines, we tend to forget that the most significant changes are slow, incremental and unseen. They happen in our daily lives while we are looking the other way. In The Practice of Everyday Life (1980; translated, 1984), the historian and cultural theorist Michel de Certeau writes that “objects and words also have hollow places in which a past sleeps, as in the everyday acts of walking, eating, going to bed, in which ancient revolutions slumber”. Our daily routines feel eternal and without origin, but a social and cultural history lies buried inside them.

Many of these theorists were writing in moments of crisis, when the everyday’s semblance of normality was lifted like a veil. Kracauer wrote in Weimar Germany, as the country lurched from one political or economic calamity to another. Lefebvre began his work just after the Second World War, when the simplest matters of French daily life, such as the search for bread and fuel, were fraught and all-consuming. Certeau’s interest in the everyday arose out of the évènements of 1968, when, he wrote, “from everywhere emerged the treasures, either aslumber or tacit, of forever unspoken experiences”. The slogans of the May revolutionaries – Never work; Beauty is in the street; Beneath the paving stones, the beach! – took aim at a life wasted on strap- hanging and clockwatching. They urged people to wake up and realize that their boredom was not obligatory.

Our own crisis has torn a similar hole in the everyday. We have learnt that it is not some tedious distraction from the things that really matter, but the real substance of our lives. We have also learnt that its permanence is an illusion; it is more precarious than we thought. While we are in the middle of it, everything that happens in daily life feels both natural and necessary. A crisis allows us to view things from afar and see that this is not so. Some of us have begun to wonder. Was all that prodding insistently at laptops and mobile phones, all that rushing through station concourses gazing up anxiously at annunciator boards, strictly necessary? Or was it part of a cult of busyness and presenteeism, a fetishizing of activity for its own sake, a life propelled forwards by the fake urgency of email meeting reminders?

Our daily lives are a mixture of the habitual disguised as the essential and the essential disguised as the habitual. A “key worker” turns out to be someone whose job involves the vital maintenance and repair of the life that we barely acknowledge. These people care for us and keep us alive, drive lorries and stack shelves in the dead of night so that we may be fed and watered, and dispose of our detritus. We have been delivered a harsh tutorial in how much we depend on strangers doing unglamorous, low-paid work, on systems and infrastructures whose workings we don’t understand, and on the minutely synchronized routines and fragile supply lines of a just-in-time economy that is always one bottleneck away from anarchy. We can’t just opt out of our dependence on others; we make everyday life together. When the world returns to something like business as usual, will we use this new knowledge to reshape our lives and value more those who make them possible?

It would be nice to think so. But crises also make us long for a return to normality, where everyday life is mere background noise, a respite from self-analysis and existential doubt. We start to miss that cheering open-sesame buzz as we lay our swipe card on the entrance scanner at work, the gossipy huddle at the photocopier, even attending a proper meeting instead of those lonely online affairs full of oblong glimpses into the domestic lives of colleagues. The everyday only feels enslaving when you are stuck inside it. Lefebvre believed that the évènements of 1968 proved unsustainable because people got sick of the disruptions and privations of a country effectively shut down. They hankered after their unexciting but livable lives, preferring “boredom at zero point” to “the hazards of desire”. The daily grind that Parisians call métro-boulot-dodo (commute-work-sleep) had its compensations after all. In the end, perhaps we all want – to invert the famous curse – to live in uninteresting times.