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Speed Read – Covid-19 and the new abnormal

Every week for 150 editions, The Friday Speed Read attempted to summarise the week’s biggest news in a way that was relatively entertaining. For the next few months we can’t promise much entertainment but we’ll still be here.

There’s been several occasions over the past three years of writing The Friday Speed Read when it’s been nearly impossible to launch into the opening paragraph in any kind of coherent or readable way. Mostly this has been due to failings in the mind of the author (i.e. me) brought upon by, say, an excess of red wine the night before or one episode too many of a box-set binge or, every now and then, just because the prospect of committing another 1000 words to the latest Brexit  developments feels like an attempt to swim through all-too familiar treacle. Of course right now, faced with the prospect of writing a Speed Read singularly unlike any other of its past 150 editions, Brexit is nothing but a minor squabble, a petty clash of competing ideologies over which we all expounded incredible and equal amounts of passion and bile but now seems irrelevant. And let’s be honest, Leave or Remain, I could still go see my Dad and give him a hug.

This week feels very different, partly because I am writing this from my desk in a partially decorated dining room in my house, partly because I’ve stopped my usual avoidance of the first-person singular pronoun (because I think the only way I can write this is as myself) but of course more than anything because we’re living through something that none of us has experienced before. And frankly, it’s scary.

It’s our intention to maintain the Speed Read throughout the Covid-19 outbreak but it’s clear that nobody’s going to want a weekly summary of news that they’ve either already consumed in forensic detail or consciously, and understandably, avoided altogether. What I write about instead is going to take some working out so you’ll have to forgive me if this first edition of the Quarantine Letters (as I won’t be calling them) lacks the focus and discipline of the regular Speed Read (like it ever had that!). It’s going to be abstract: a collage of observations, feelings and fears.

The spine of the regular Speed Read has always been provided by the national newspapers that are delivered as a bundle to our office every morning and then are hauled up the stairs to Speed HQ by whoever’s in first. Given that we’ve all been banished to our houses, I made a spirited attempt to follow the coverage online but it quickly became overwhelming. I’ve been a news junkie all my life, increasingly so since the dawn of the smartphone era when alerts and rolling live coverage has allowed us to, literally, be updated every minute of every day; but this week I’ve turned away more often than I’ve turned on. And it felt odd but it also felt necessary. When I have plugged back in the impact has been instant: “Exams axed, deaths soar and army in”; “Virus will put 8m in hospital”; “Save our elderly”; “Italy struggles to bury its dead” and “Stick it up yer virus!” (thanks The Daily Star, you never let us down).

A cynic would say that the media is enjoying itself; after all, what better way to demonstrate both its enduring relevance and necessity than the biggest upheaval in British society since the Second World War? And yes, there’s been something gleeful about some of the reporting and a rush towards the hyperbole of worst case scenarios needs to tempered with some of the better ones BUT (and it’s a big but hence the capitals) when the Express prints a front page declaring “Hope in fight against killer virus” and the Mirror quotes the Queen on its Friday edition – “Our history has been forged by coming together as one” then it’s inevitably going to help people feel better. It makes me feel better and I’m moderately cynical about everything I read in the papers. Strange times indeed.

It’s also odd to compare the UK’s response to the epidemic with that of other countries. We’re being encouraged to go outside, take exercise, the National Trust has opened many of its gardens for people to use for free, but in France you need written permission to leave the house. In some countries people are not allowed to go outside for any reason apart from shopping. Which approach is correct? I don’t know. No one knows. And that doesn’t make anyone feel any more reassured.

So yes, my media consumption has dropped considerably (as has my consumption of the cakes, biscuits and crisps that are a feature of life at Speed for which my middle aged body will be very thankful) and I’ve begun, as I suppose is only natural, to be far more concerned about the local picture rather than the national one. And it’s easy to be angry about the hoarders and the panic buyers, the bog roll Al Capones and the sanitiser shysters and it’s definitely a metaphorical slap around the face when your turn the corner into the vegetable aisle to see an expanse of empty shelves. These aren’t news reports from a war-torn foreign power or a drama set in Communist Russia this is 2020 in the United Kingdom and it’s tough to realise just how thin the veneer of our normality actually is.

However, you’ll have read the hundreds of stories about people being amazing: the offers of help posted through the door, the Facebook groups full of neighbours being lovey to neighbours, the local businesses making the best of a catastrophe and adapting wherever they can: cafes delivering food, breweries delivering beer; there’s been an outbreak of a very different kind. An outbreak of decency and selflessness. Although I get the feeling that we’ve been like this all along, but no one’s noticed until now.

At Speed, we’re doing our best in difficult times. We’re all working remotely, keeping in touch, checking in, sharing virtual coffees and Netflix recommendations. Thank god for the internet. For our clients we’re doing our absolute best to support, advise and reassure. We’re still working hard but we’re learning to work differently. As everyone will need to do at least for now. Perhaps forever.

But one thing that definitely won’t be forever is this virus and the extreme measures we’re all currently required to take. It’s going to be a bit of a long haul but we’ll make it; there will be an end to all of this and when that end comes I’m certain there’s going to be a party. A really, really big party. In the meantime, take care, stay at home and don’t buy all the pasta.

We’ll be back next week to check on how you are.

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