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Speed Read – Quarantined and querulous

Every week, The Friday Speed Read unpacks the biggest news stories from a large box delivered to it by a man in a battered white Transit van and then turns them into words for you to read. It has never thought to check the provenance of this delivery but it’s likely too late to be worrying about such things now.

Before we start, let me suggest that you read this while maintaining a two-metre distance from your digital device. It’s going to test your eyesight sure, but given that I am writing this week’s column from the something-th day of quarantine then it’s best to be careful. Covid-flippancy aside being made to isolate on my return from a holiday en France has not been too onerous. It’s not like I lack experience in the arena of permanently staying inside my house and trying to avoid starting armed skirmishes with my family over which one of us has eaten too many Weetabix because somehow we’re down to our last two. By this stage in the pageant of misery that is 2020 I am a veteran. We all are. I even had a Zoom call with some friends last weekend. How April 2020 is that?

Anyway, France was great thanks. Lots of the good stuff: wine, cheese, bread that’s even better than Lidl’s and there was something profoundly liberating about watching Plymouth disappear (always the correct way to view Plymouth) from the deck of a sparsely-passengered ferry. Respite, some respite, from all that the crap that the year has thrown in our direction so far. Thanks so much to Julia and Vinnie for taking up the reins of the Speed Read horse in my absence; both did a splendid job and both proved the significant bump in quality that can be achieved by pithy openings and the avoidance of ridiculous metaphors.

I succeeded in avoiding the news (except from France quarantine chat) while on holiday so it was “reassuring” to return home to discover that very little had changed. Gavin Williamson was inexplicably still the Secretary of State for Education despite more U-turns and humiliations than the time I confidently predicted I could drive to my very good friend’s wedding reception in the countryside without first consulting a map (story circa 2005, long before Google Maps). There was a time that ministerial bungling on even a modest level would result in near-instant resignation (and that time was of course during every government before this one) but of course now, in the post-Cummings-Barnard Castle era, being a pal of Boris Johnson’s means you’re immune from such pesky annoyances such as accountability.  Following what’s generously regarded by even the most ardent of Conservatives as a complete and utter shambles over exam results, the head of Ofqual resigned, the top senior civil servant in the Department for Education was sacked and Gavin Williamson is still in a job. No, me neither.

In this context, the fact that government policy on facemasks in English schools has shifted from “completely unnecessary” to “well, um, hang on  . . .” to “better wear them in communal areas in places that are in local lockdown” to “hell, just do what you want guys” is not so much as a surprise as indicative of a creed: no government could have adequately prepared for the hellishness of Covid-19 but I think we all deserve (and need) better than one that seems to be just making it up as it goes along.

In culture news, many of the week’s front pages were preoccupied by a story that the BBC was planning to drop ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Rule Britannia’ from the programme for the Last Night of the Proms. The corporation had posited, it was reported, that such anthems of Britain’s colonial past sit somewhat uncomfortably in the post-BLM world (not to mention the fact that the scansion in the line “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves” is almost as terrible as the French’s attempt to squeeze the many syllables of “Joyeux anniversaire” into the standard tune). Anyway, if there was ever a story that was precision-tooled to provoke a mouth-frothing, eye-bulging response from certain areas of the media then my goodness this was it.

And not just the media. The government got involved. Nigel Farage got involved. Laurence Fox got involved. The BBC said that they would include the songs after all but without lyrics. “Surrender!” shouted the Mail, acutely aware of the power of its hyperbole. The BBC responded that given that the Last Night of the Proms won’t have an audience this year for obvious reasons any singing at all would be, well, impossible. But the BBC was ignored and instead Mr Fox and friends instigated a campaign to get these two “anthems” to Number 1. And because the world is what it is then of course they succeeded and as I write this, Land of Hope and Glory is at the top of the iTunes chart, and Rule Britannia is number 2. Oh yes, some people thought it fun to send death threats to the Finnish conductor who will lead the orchestra during the Last Night performance because you know, it’s really THAT IMPORTANT.

Some good news.  Jimmy Anderson has now taken 600 test match wickets which, if you are cricket-lover (afternoon Oli), is a wonderful thing. Anderson would be appear to be a lovely man and he’s a brilliant, brilliant cricketer, it was just a shame that this feat was achieved in an empty stadium. The man deserves an ovation of thousands of cider-soaked cricket fans in fancy dress. And we pray to all religious and secular gods that this might be possible again by the time cricket season returns next year.

Elsewhere, Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ became the first BIG film to return to cinemas since their reopening and reviews ranged from “um  . . . .” to “OMG there’s bullets that go backwards”; the Guardian published three separate reviews – a two star, a three star and a five star, proving that no one knows anything. Audiences seem to have been as big as social distancing measures have allowed them to be which is something of a relief. A world without the chance to see films on a large screen alongside other human beings is a poorer world indeed.

And talking of reopening, just as schools reopen next week, we are making our first tentative steps back to the office. We won’t all be there at the same time and there’s a huge amount of safety measures in place to which we’ll need to become accustomed but it’s a welcome change. It feels like progress. This is the 22nd edition of the Speed Read written from home and one day I’ll be able to read back and perhaps see these columns as record of an unforgettable period in all of our lives. But that’s for the future; we’re still in the midst of the pandemic whether we like it or not so for now I’ll just continue putting one word in front of another, moving tentatively towards, we hope, better times ahead.

Enjoy the Bank Holiday despite the rubbish weather. Thanks for reading. And now over to my esteemed colleague Professor of the Groove Shaun Hickman for another of his mood-boosting musical recommendations:

This song is for anyone out there who’s found adapting to this new way of life a challenge (myself included!) Finding some light and positivity amidst all the darkness and uncertainty can feel like the ultimate struggle, but it IS possible. Embrace the good, the bad and the ugly and you’ll probably be on the right track…

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