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A week or so before the UK’s lockdown I could be found on a crowded dancefloor in Camden on a Friday evening. Everyone in that club would have been aware of the COVID-19 outbreak, and it was the subject of many conversations I heard above the music. Yet apart from a bathroom attendant’s insistence that everyone washed their hands before leaving the Gents, things were pretty much as usual.

If they existed at all, any fears were abandoned in the joy of the moment, and while some of the tunes played by Mary Anne Hobbs now seem prescient (Raging Earth, anyone?), the virus was even the subject of amusing stage banter from one of the acts that night, Mike Skinner of The Streets. “You don’t have a temperature: you’re just dancing!” he said. We laughed and continued dancing.

Time and space

A few weeks later, the idea of hundreds of people dancing, drinking and flirting in close proximity seems so utterly alien it could be from another age.

Perhaps it was another age. As we now try and maintain a safe distance from each other more space has emerged around us. Yet the new times we find ourselves in have no room for a frivolous and dangerous activity like dancing. The new normal is a confusing and uncertain place.

Leaving the house for my sanctioned exercise over the last few weeks, I have grown acutely aware of the immediate space around me. Like most, I have developed a better sense of how two metres looks and feels. Without any visible growth of cats’ whiskers, I assume this development comes from interacting with other people; their maintenance of a greater distance to me having been mimicked so effectively it’s now more reflex than response. The incursion of shoppers, joggers or cyclists — always the cyclists! — into my own space now feels intrusive, sometimes hostile.

Warning: not to scale

On today’s walk, I considered how we have carved much of the physical world around us into units of space based on the size of our bodies. As well as assumptions about the preferred proximity of our bodies to each other.

Most escalators, for example, allow only two people to stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder, regardless of whether they are good friends or complete strangers. Cars are designed to seat a fixed number of passengers, while sofas are measured by the persons they sit, and houses are defined by the number of bedrooms.

More fluid pieces of apparatus like park benches or picnic blankets refuse to comply with this code and encourage people to move over, squidge up and fight for their fair share of the space provided. How awkward.

Some people will prefer the regimentation of a seat with arms, while others favour the chaos of a beanbag. Our contrasting attitudes to personal space perhaps explain why an empty dancefloor provokes terror in some, yet in others presents the urgent opportunity to get out there and get lost in music. Understandably, though, few seem to like to share an underground train handrail at the moment.

Questions from afar

The rupture caused by social distancing has made the navigation of a world built around our spacing increasingly tricky. As we make tentative steps back into the world outside our homes, how will we maintain the greater space required around us?

Who will be allowed inside our two-metre protection zone, and who will not? If you think this will be easy, consider facing a friend with whom you have only chatted over Zoom for weeks on end. Will you resist the temptation to hug them close? I’m not sure I will. Perhaps we should agree planned physical interaction with friends now, in anticipation of the eventual relaxation of lockdown?

Longer-term, we could adopt a system of badges or wristbands to indicate our preference for physical proximity. More likely, our smartphones will communicate wirelessly as we near another individual, sharing our preferences in advance and alerting us if they are compatible with those we are about to meet. Move over Tindr, hello Closr.

And as places such as restaurants, pubs and cafes open their doors once again, what will we be faced with? These spaces were designed for social interaction and fulfil a fundamental human need. How will we handle these Perspex echo chambers with anything like the same joy as before?

Just friends

The answer, of course, is with difficulty. But while the search for a vaccine continues and human beings stumble in and out of each other’s personal spaces, some comfort might be gained in the greater platonic intimacy we have found as our lives have been lived online.

People still need physical interaction and always will. Nothing will change this. But until it is more widely obtainable, intimacy will continue to be found where it can: online. It’s undeniable that many friendships have been formed and strengthened during the pandemic, through our efforts to reach out using any means of interaction that is both safe and permitted.

Whether participating in WhatsApp groups with new friends, identifying shared interests on Instagram, playing Zoom pub quizzes or learning skills alongside others who will, in fact, never be met in person, new connections are being made all the time.

Beyond the bake-alongs and Twitter listening parties, anecdotal evidence suggests that more of the important stuff — what we actually feel — is being shared online. With friends both new and old, and people we had lost touch with.

Don’t be fooled: any suggestion that these online relationships do not provide some form of intimacy is incorrect. They do, even if they perhaps require us to be more honest with each other. To think they are not intimate would be as wide of the mark as the belief that we will never share a dance floor again.

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