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Speed Read – all hail Captain Tom

Every Friday, the Speed Read is composed over a couple of difficult hours that feature too much coffee and a soundtrack of ambient music from the late 90s. Only you will know if it’s all been worth the effort.

Three more weeks then. Or rather, three more weeks AT LEAST. Stand-in Prime Minster Dominic Raab was a little coy behind the podium yesterday when announcing that the UK Lockdown™ was to continue for another twenty-one days: twenty-one more days of relatives talking over each other on Zoom calls; troubling, experimental hair growth and far too much cheese for someone in the early stages of what I am calling my “glory years” but is known to the rest of world as middle age. And when you’re still trying to convince a notable percentage of the population that street barbecues, sex parties and family picnics in the park (all of which have indeed been happening) fall outside the requirements of “social distancing”, Raab was unlikely to address the nation, leaning rakishly on the dais, cider in hand, wry smile curving his grey lips and tell us “You know what guys, we’re nearly through this. A few more days and then we’re going to part-ay like a fringe event at the Tory Conference with a subsidised bar!” No. It wasn’t going to happen.

What do we think of Raab by the way? I realise that in times of national crisis that it’s a decent plan to get behind the government in a manner that would be in normal times, for old cynics like me least, as uncomfortable as wearing an ironed shirt after a month in lockdown. However, that doesn’t mean it should get a free pass. As the new Labour leader Keir Starmer said recently, scrutiny of the government is now more important than ever. Anyway, if there’s ever been a more apposite use of the hoary old cliché of a ‘meteoric rise” than Raab’s journey from taking the bins out for Theresa May to standing at the national dais while the Prime Minster recovers from coronavirus then I can’t think of one. Not that meteors do rise. In fact, they mostly fall and do so blazingly quickly towards planets, often bringing oblivion. Just ask a stegosaurus. What all this says about Dominic Raab is beyond my remit but I suspect he’d prefer a different metaphor.

If anyone needs a justification for the “at least” suffix appended to the three-week estimate then you need only glance at the news. Yes, there are some encouraging signs of improvement: “Infections flattening out in Britain” (The Times); “Virus finally reaching peak” (Telegraph) but the reality of the moment is still unrelentingly grim. Whether it’s the emerging story about the lack of PPE in care homes, the Mirror’s Tuesday gallery of 35 healthcare workers killed by the virus or the daily death toll that, despite recent decreases, is still in the high hundreds every single day. It doesn’t take much to be reminded that if lockdown is the most effective means of controlling the epidemic then, as ruinous as it’s been for some, it’s got to continue for as long as required.

Mind you, I should be careful with words like ruinous. Ruinous implies finality when in fact everyone is clinging tightly the notion that “normality” will return, not that it’s easy to do. There was an almost darkly comic tinge (and I stress the ‘almost’) to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s mid-week estimate that our GDP could shrink by up to 35% in the coming months. Now, as anyone who has seen me trying to process my company credit card receipts will attest, I am no economist but even I know that such a plummet in the value of our goods and services is so far beyond usual parameters that it becomes impossible to process the potential consequences without recourse to expletives.  Or history. The Telegraph said that it would be “the biggest economic shock in 300 years” (history fans should Google “The Great Frost of 1709” for both the source of the Telegraph’s analogy and its inexact mathematics). The Mirror, more starkly, said that there were “dark days ahead.”

But for any semblance of good mental health to be maintained we have to channel our inner D-Ream and believe, now more than ever before, that things can indeed only get better. Maybe that’s the reason that this week has seen such a rash of articles, features and podcasts all around the same essential question: What will (blank) be like after the epidemic has passed? Seriously, there’s been dozens of them. What will the aviation industry be like? What will football be like? What will climate change policy be like? Cricket? Tinder? Office culture? Busses? Fashion? Music? Your hair? You can understand why the questions are being asked. And to be honest, the answers don’t matter a jot (not yet anyway); the fact that there are answers at all, that there is a future to be considered, debated and conjured into being by our imaginations is a profound and slightly dizzying comfort.

Talking of comfort. One fella who’s doing okay out of all “this” is Jeff Bezos. The Amazon CEO has seen his fortune grow by $5 billion in the past three months meaning his net worth is currently $120 billion. So, don’t worry about Jeff; Jeff’s going to be okay. $2,489 a second’s worth of okay. If only there was some pressing global issue that urgently required funding on an unprecedented scale . . . do shout if you’ve got any ideas.

I was going to talk briefly about Donald Trump but, frankly, it’s both terrifying and depressing. Let me just say that I sincerely hope that withdrawing US funding for the World Health Organisation (and yes, its record is imperfect but what global institution is flawless?) in the midst of the biggest single challenge to global heath in a century is part of a political strategy so damn brilliant that it can’t be understood by cerebral minnows like myself. Because the alternative would just be insane wouldn’t it?

So to Captain Tom. A man to unite the tabloids and the broadsheets, the government and the opposition, the left and right, the old and the young, the reds and the blues  . . . you get the idea. Everyone loves Captain Tom Moore, the 99-year-old ex-serviceman who wanted to mark his upcoming 100th birthday by walking 100 lengths (10 per day) of his 25 metre his garden using his walking frame. He wanted to raise money for NHS charities working with those impacted by Covid-19 and so asked for sponsorship. His original target was £1,000. As I write this, the total he’s raised is £18,272,358. You don’t need me to tell you that’s staggering. And humbling. And a whole bundle of other emotions too. In a world in which we overuse the word hero, Captain Tom is the living embodiment of the term.

And if you can excuse something of an arch final paragraph for which you can blame the times, the emotion, the worry, the pressing need for metaphors of hope then maybe we can all learn something from Captain Tom: as hard as it might be, as long a road as it may seem right now, if we all just keeping putting one foot slowly in front of the other then we’re going to get to the end of this nightmare. And it’s going to be very sweet when we do.

Take care. Stay safe. See you next week.

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