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Speed Read – all aboard the rota fortunae

Every week the Friday Speed Read exists and you can read it. And right now, that feels like something.

I think we can all agree it’s been a rough week and I’m certainly not going to be able to do much in the next 1000 words or so to stop the furrowing of brows or the clenching of stomachs. So, if you’re looking for an escape from all things Covid-19 then maybe direct your attention elsewhere, or at least skip to the closing paragraphs of this week’s column where I plan to end with something that might lift the spirits a little. Although as I sit at my home desk surrounded by notes on the week’s headlines, I think this promised moment of levity may well have to be fictional.

It’s been a week of dark words. “Surge”; “tipping-point”; “wave”; “perilous”; “shutdown”; “disaster” – as if “pandemic” and “mass unemployment” weren’t already enough. The sudden, massive increase in Covid-19 infections in the UK has brought misery to many, fear to all but the most idiotic of conspiracy theorists and has sent the media into the kind of tonal shift usually reserved for the weakest of television dramas. After weeks of hope, of new normals, of eating out to help out, of opening for business, this was the moment that, to quote the Daily Mail, the UK was “slammed into reverse”. Not “put”, not “eased” but “slammed” and yes I know it’s only a headline but language choice matters and metaphors are powerful; they set the tone not just for those that read the newspapers but for a nation. If you’ll forgive the hyperbole. But I don’t think it is one.

Boris Johnson appeared on television on Tuesday night and looked grim, as well he might. Surely there’s never been a greater gap between a new PM’s expectations of the months ahead and the reality of what in fact happened? Actually, scrap the “surely”, it’s not even a question. The tenure of most leaders is often defined by managed disappointment as the promises that got them elected are gradually diluted, changed beyond recognition or forgotten about altogether. But the puff-cheeked, jolly bluster of Boris Johnson in late 2019 (“We’re going to get Brexit done and make Britain the greatest country in the world in which to live! Bally-Hoo!”) seems less like words from a simpler time but more like it was spoken in a different language altogether. Anyway, like him or loathe him it’s clearly a horrendous moment to be Prime Minister, although he can surely take some comfort in a job security greater than millions of his compatriots.

Johnson gave the nation a good ticking off during his television address. Maybe we deserved it. But after shooing us back to our offices, urging us into restaurants and pubs, asking us to start spending again to support the economy, it does sting somewhat to be told that we’ve not been sufficiently careful to avoid a resurgence of the virus. So, a 10pm curfew has been imposed; masks are now obligatory in more contexts, wedding guest numbers have been reduced and once again we’ve got to work at home if we can. In England we can still visit each other’s houses (as long as we don’t number more than six) but in the other nations in the UK, that too has been banned. Oh and fines are larger than before for anyone breaking the rules. So not a full lockdown like the one we slogged through earlier this year, and for now at least schools remain open, but it’s pretty close. And who knows, maybe we’ll be back to full national shutdown before too long?

It doesn’t feel like it did before. To me at least (and without conducting some unfeasibly large survey of you all I can only speak for myself). No one with any sense is going to disagree that some ramping up of restrictions was needed; when you look at the stats and graphs it doesn’t take a Grade B in Statistics at GCSE (guess who’s got one of those?) to see that there’s trouble ahead. Remember in April when 1000 people were dying each day of Covid-19? That’s where we’re heading again without greater intervention so of course a tightening of the rules is necessary. But what’s missing this time around is that sense of collectivism; those fleeting moments of national unity as we hunkered down and put notes thorough our neighbours’ doors offering help with their grocery shopping. This isn’t me rose-tinting the past; at least I don’t think it is. I remember it. I wrote about it. Lockdown was a profound shock but it was one that we absorbed, adapted to and, in some ways at least, I think we made it work.

This second coming is a lot tougher to take. Even if the scientists have told us for weeks that it was “inevitable” no one really listened because no one wanted to believe it was true. History, life, emotions, everything that isn’t life and death is cyclical; centuries before it was a gameshow, medieval philosophy gave us the “wheel of fortune”, constantly turning, happiness followed by sadness, plenty followed by penury, around and around, time and time again. But in our heads, in my head, the journey from March 2020 has been linear: things slowly, ever-so-slowly, improving, with promises of better times ahead if only we have patience. Restrictions easing, infections falling, lives getting busier after such a long period of stillness. Which is why this sudden turn of Fortune’s wheel towards darker times again feels just so tough on the soul.

Anyway, sorry about all that. My “introduction” has somehow ended up being 900 words long and for a column founded on the principle of snappy reportage of the week’s big stories, the whole thing has been a colossal failure. But hey, it’s been that kind of week. Let me try to get things back on track. Friday’s front pages are covered with photographs of future Prime Minister Rishi Sunak whose replacement for the furlough scheme, essentially contributing up to 22% of wages, is either a “daring escape plan” if you’re the Daily Express or “too little, too late” if you’re the Mirror. As ever, the truth is probably somewhere in between but as Sunak himself said “I cannot save every business. I cannot save every job”. Tough times are here. Tougher times are ahead.

I promised you a happier ending. And here we are at the end and I’m not feeling particularly buoyant. That said, Michael Kiwanuka last night won the Mercury Music Prize for his stunning album “Kiwanuka” to which you should definitely listen. And Bake Off has returned and it’s as comforting as ever. And it’s Friday and that’s something. And people remain largely brilliant. There is goodness all around. Moods still change for the better. Laughter still comes. And this will end. Not just this column but all of this worry. We’ll be changed, life may well be different but it will be good. It may even be better.

Ending with a bit of Shakespeare is something that often tempts me and I’m usually strong enough to resist. But not today. In Act 2 of King Lear, the disguised Earl of Kent is held in the stocks and offers up a secular prayer for better times ahead. I think it’s a fitting end for a challenging week.

Fortune, good night, smile once more; turn thy wheel!

And now that’s over with; here’s some Kiwanuka.

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