Life In: Leicester Square is Alright

By Darren Weale, Founder, Cool Local, Bromley, 25th August 2020

Life In is a new Cool Local series of blog posts about local life and cool things around the UK.

Leicester Square is  Alright. No, with this being written after a visit for a day in August 2020, things generally aren’t alright. The Brexit turmoil, the pandemic turmoil, the exams turmoil, and somewhat sidelined environmental turmoil. Let’s face it, there is a lot of unsettling stuff going on, with the pandemic having the most profound immediate impact across society. So much so that the term the ‘new normal’ has been coined for how society is re-configuring itself day to day.

I had to meet someone in Leicester Square this week. Owing to the nature of my work, I had successfully avoided trips to central London since lockdown began in March. The ‘mask on the train’, the social distance people avoidance, the seeing the busy places and the happy people lifeless and dull, as I feel is happening all too often, put me off.

This week’s trip, though, was surprisingly encouraging. A train trip to Charing Cross with a mask blowing my own warm breath up my face wasn’t good and I gave up reading to sleep on the journey if I could. I walked the short distance to Leicester Square and felt really nervous around people, as I have been when seeing people maskless in shops or getting carelessly close. Just doing what was normal when it isn’t and fearing the worse was horrid. But what did I encounter? Much of the old normal, in fact, including…

First up, musician Rob Falsini, a man with a very good voice, busking and doing a fine rendition of a U2’s ‘Blood Red Sky’, with a hopeful lyric – ‘We will begin again’. Then he decided to end his set with a Radiohead number, so I moved on before their sheer depressingness ate into my slightly revived mood. It revived a great deal more due to then meeting two homeless people.

The smiles of Mickey (Big Issue seller, left, above, in front of an open cinema) and Chris (right) were beaming their way around the square as they sought buyers for the magazines and for people to be nice to, and one of them was me. Mickey said that they are ‘brothers who look out for each other’ and they were simply a reminder of just how nice people can be, whatever their station in life. It made me reflect on one of the very few upsides of the pandemic, that the government has shaken its magic money tree to accommodate homeless people in a way and with a speed it never managed before, and long may it continue.

I passed a man sharing the word of God, another old Leicester Square favourite, and a French bulldog who was observing ‘Bones’, a puppet performing to music and talking to passers by. As Bones’ puppeteer said, “I built my own theatre. You’ve got to take advantage of any opportunities that present themselves.” One song was, thankfully, Pharrell Williams ‘Happy’, a one-song Radiohead antidote. I moved on to another reminder that the Leicester Square/Soho area is a melting pot of the affluent and the poor and dispossessed.

The Catholic Notre Dame De France church was the source of the queue (the longest in the square) of homeless taking food and drink from a small premises between a closed gentleman’s club and an also closed ‘Just Chips’ outlet. It was good to see the help being offered and received in the heart of London, and I stopped for a quick chat with a masked helper.

The Moon Under Water pub was taking its safety seriously, but my first visit to a pub in months felt as uncomfortable as I feared. That part of the new normal – calculating and accepting risk and enjoying things unhindered – is hard. However, the trip ended on a high with a few good things at the end.

The sight of a giant panda entertaining people in Chinatown was welcome, and so too was finding the Wong Kei, a contender for my new favourite Chinese restaurant after the New World nearby closed despite my personal dining support, maintained for over twenty-five years. The Wonky, as my lunch partner referred to it, was formerly described as the rudest restaurant in London. That was pre-2014. I don’t think it has changed that much, but the food is good.

No, the new normal isn’t much fun, but compared to how it might have been, Leicester Square is Alright.