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Speed Read – Prime Minister Rashford pelting down the wing

Every week The Friday Speed Read checks the seaweed hanging outside the window of its garret in an attempt to predict both the weather and the stories that you’ll want to read with your afternoon cuppa. To be honest, mostly it just smells a bit fusty.

I should probably open this week’s rag-tag ramblings with a friendly warning that a proportion of the forthcoming wordcount will be dedicated to the sport of Association Football. I do realise for some, for many perhaps, there’s little joy to be derived from watching twenty-two expensive haircuts chase a leather ball around manicured field for 90 minutes, often whilst expectorating. This category includes my friend Doug who contributed this nugget of scorn to our “Middle Aged Men Harping on About Nothing” WhatsApp group this week: “You’d have thought that after the initial withdrawal symptoms subsided people would have realised what a load of nonsense it all is . . .”

With mumbled and insincere apologies to Doug and his fellow soccer cynics, football has had a good week and we need to talk about it. And let’s be honest, it needed a good week after a shocking weekend that saw crowds of portly white racists gathered in Parliament Square to toss beer cans, urinate in the street and make Nazi salutes in front of the boarded-up statue of Winston Churchill. All the while failing to see the colossal irony of what they were doing. Plus of course they were singing, amongst other deeply unpleasant things, the old “Eng-er-land” refrain that began in all innocence during the chorus of New Order’s legendary World in Motion (released to coincide with the World Cup in Italy in 1990) but has since been adopted  by the kind of “fans” that make Nazi salutes in front of the boarded-up statue of Winston Churchill.

Step forward Marcus Rashford. Not to take a penalty or begin a dazzling run down the wing but to show the kind of empathy, courage, leadership that is all too often lacking amongst politicians on all sides. And yes it’s easier to be strident and crusading about a single issue than it is to run an entire country but what Rashford achieved this week in forcing the government into U-turn on its previous decision to stop free school meals over the summer months should not be bundled up with the usual cynicism that befuddles political debate in our country. By drawing on his own experiences of growing up in a single-parent family with a hard-working Mum reliant on free school meals to provide nutrition for her children, Rashford deftly flipped the narrative of entitled, multi-millionaire footballers and cast himself as a man of the people. The fact that the government spent two days patronising him before then acquiescing made the victory all the sweeter.

“Back of the net!” shouted the Mirror the next morning; “Rashford 1 Boris 0” said “i”; “Rashers for PM” demanded The Star. And Metro did its best too: “They thought free school meals were over, they’re not now” which wins the award for the week’s best intentioned and most woefully executed headline.

And then football itself returned. Or at least a version of football which is played in an empty stadium and during which the thunderous sound of the crowd with its songs, adulations and barbs is replaced with a much thinner soundtrack of the players shouting things like “Kev! Kev! Pass me the ball! I’d like to kick the ball towards the goal please! Kev! KEV!”. It’s odd. Really odd. Even with the fake crowd noise piped into the coverage by the broadcasters it feels like you’re watching an imperfect clone of something you love; a bit like in the 80s when you could buy tapes of famous songs being performed by session musicians. Manchester City vs Arsenal was the equivalent of Don’t You Want Me Baby? performed not by the Human League but by a made-up group called We Like Keyboards Yeah!

It may be imperfect but it’s something. And after the three months that we’ve had then that something is very welcome indeed. Plus, with all the players kneeling at the start (someone please explain this Matt Hancock) of the game and wearing shirts with “Black Lives Matter” on their backs instead their names then you’ve got to give the sport some credit. Just think how much all of that will have enraged the Parliament Square buffoons.

Other good news this week came in the form of dexamethasone, a cheap steroid found in every hospital pharmacy which British scientists have discovered can help the sickest Covid-19 patients on ventilators. It won’t save everyone and it’s certainly not a vaccine but trials have proved that the drug was responsible for saving 1 in 8 patients who were given it.  That’s not a huge percentage but when you multiply it over the thousands upon thousands of people who’ve died from this horrible disease you can see that it would have saved many, many lives. The government approved the drug for immediate use and it’s clearly excellent that it will save lives in the future. You can perhaps forgive the Mail’s hyperbole on Wednesday – “50p a day drug to conquer Covid”.

“Non-essential” shops opened on Monday although from the queues outside Primark we may need to alter our definition of what’s essential. The government want us all to “shop for Britain” although it’s going to take a long time before many are tempted back onto the high street. And for all the welcome positivity, we should remember that things are still a very long way from normal. The cultural life of the country is close to collapse and only yesterday producer Cameron Mackintosh announced that none of his musicals would be returning to the West End before some point next year and he’ll be making thousands of his staff redundant. And it’s not just the massive shows, it’s the local theatres, the independent cinemas, the things that make life worth living for so many people. You can play a football match without a crowd but as Hamlet said, the purpose of plays is “to hold, as t’were, a mirror up to nature”, but without an audience there’s nothing to reflect. It’s so sad.

This morning the Chief Medical Officers of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland announced that the Covid-19 alert level is being reduced from 4 to 3. Before you go and start snogging strangers in a pub, the definition of Level 3 is “A Covid-19 epidemic is in general circulation” so it’s hardly time for celebration but it does mean numbers of infections are slowly falling and that the recent relaxing of lockdown regulations seem not have had a detrimental effect. It’s cautiously good news.

Finally, Friday’s front pages all feature photographs of Dame Vera Lynn, the “forces sweetheart” who died yesterday aged 103. Listening to the familiar strains of “We’ll Meet Again” on the radio yesterday, it struck me for the first time how powerful those words must have been during the war, with families separated, men kissing their wives and girlfriends goodbye, many of them never to return. The Queen invoked the lyrics during her broadcast at the start of lockdown and there’s definitely a small echo of the war years as we all emerge from our homes, long-haired and fragile, perhaps even seeing loved ones for the first time in what seems like far too long. It just goes to prove that the greatest art is indeed both timeless and as necessary for good health as air and water.

There’s only one song we can play now.

See you next week.

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