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Speed Read – missives at dawn

Every week apart from weeks when it doesn’t happen The Friday Speed Read enters the news ring like a boxer, complete with absurd shorts, to embark on twelve rounds of headline-based pugilism. Seconds out!

The following information likely does little to enhance the reading experience but I need to let you know that it’s pretty early in the morning as I write this. Not absurdly early but sufficiently so to conjure that bleary-eyed semi-reality in which shapes are changed, feelings are raw and I dare not puncture the darkness with anything more than a small lamp for fear of dazzling my eyes and shattering the world into a billion tiny pieces. Not that the world needs any help in being shattered right now.

I’m not sure what’s provoked this moment of pre-dawn wakefulness; perhaps it’s the whorl of angst that’s caused by living through a pandemic with the barrage of news, most of it bad, that’s so hard to ignore (although I’ve done a fairly good job this week in shielding myself from the worst of it) or perhaps it’s that I ate too much halloumi last night. Thinking about it now, it’s probably the halloumi.

Anyway, ever-searching for the positives on a Friday morning, there are three good things that have emerged as a result of this early-morning session at the laptop. One: the Friday Speed Read will return today after a week’s hiatus caused by having too many items on my to-do list (which I will gladly admit is a very luxurious problem to have right now). Two: I am listening to something that fits the 6am atmosphere so perfectly that at this moment I’m ready to declare it the best thing I’ve heard all year (more about this at the end of the column). Three: I get to correctly use a verb that is always tricky to drop into conversation not least because it sounds like something that should be reserved for the bedroom – I am lucubrating. That is to say that I am “writing by lamplight” and if you imagine I thought twice about dropping in an obscure Latinate word from the Seventeenth Century into a column composed in the waning months of 2020 then it’s clearly your first time here. Welcome.

And so to business. Where do you want to start? I suppose we could dodge what’s happening here for a couple of paragraphs and look across the ocean to gawp at the fluorescent parade of insanity that are the dog days of Trump’s first (only?) presidential term. It was just over a week ago that a billion news alerts nudged their way onto smartphones around the world informing us that Donald Trump had contracted Covid-19, along with his wife and a number of his senior staff. His supporters dropped to their knees in prayer; health pundits posited that his Trump’s age and physique made him especially vulnerable to the disease and political geeks, while not actually wishing death on a fellow human, got excited about the 25th Amendment and reminded the world that if both the president and vice-president were incapacitated then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would assume the presidency. It was all somehow reminiscent of a plotline from The West Wing but without the firecracker dialogue or the warm feeling of watching good people trying to do good things in trying circumstances.

By Monday of this week, it was clear that Trump was no longer in mortal danger and was hastening back to his old self with what must be described as impressive speed. Some of this was spin, mostly by himself of course, but it’s clear that whatever cocktail of experimental drugs were pumped into the President they seem to have been remarkably effective. By mid-week he was back at the White House, still infectious, removing his mask like some conquering hero returning from the filth of war and telling the nation that Coronavirus was really no big deal and that people shouldn’t be unduly worried. The whole performance was so definitively Trumpian that it will feature in the grim gallery of images that future historians will compile when documenting this most appalling of years. Health experts the world over put their heads in hands: the USA has the highest rate of Covid-19 in the planet. The President of the USA, and you have to admit that he’s been consistent in this line from the start, says that it’s really not a big problem. And now he’s the living the proof. Scary times. He can’t still win. Can he? (Yes).

Back in the UK and Coronavirus continues to surge, particularly in the towns and cities of the North.  Further lockdown restrictions are likely to be announced early next week for millions of people living in these areas. “It’s Grim Sup North” said the Sun’s front page on Thursday in an attempt at a pun that didn’t really land but the paper was right that pubs are one of the main factors in the supercharging of infections. Nicola Sturgeon announced a (possibly) temporary closure of nearly all hospitality venues in Scotland earlier in the week and it’s now looking certain that Johnson will impose similar curbs. The hospitality industry is of course furious about this and has warned that thousands and thousands of businesses will simply be extinguished by any ramping up of restrictions.

Whether or not you believe that Dominic Cummings’ now-infamous jaunt to Barnard Castle to “test his eyesight” was the moment that the national consensus on the UK’s coronavirus response was broken, what is certain is that the days of rainbows in windows are long gone. A significant ideological divide has emerged between those that believe that tough restrictions are the only way to counter what’s clearly the second wave of Covid-19 and those who decry the loss of freedom as too high a price for little gain. This schism was there from the start to an extent but what’s changed recently is that the dissenting voices have some scientific backing (and lots of scientific opposition it must be said) and that they are on the front page of some newspapers. The Sun, The Telegraph and The Mail have all adopted a vociferous anti-lockdown stance: The Mail’s Thursday headline “So when will they listen?” with pictures of Whitty, Johnson and Vallance with ears, eyes and ears covered respectively was accompanied by a by-line that stated that “Covid rules may increase death.” And this isn’t a one-off; this is the start of a campaign waged by papers so Conservative by instinct that they should be printed in blue ink. The PM’s list of problems just gets longer.

Finally, Rishi Sunak, who let’s be honest is having a good pandemic, had bad interview on Tuesday in which he implied that people who worked in arts, nearly all of whom have had all of their income wiped out since mid-March, should probably start retraining for a job in a new sector. A lot of people were made very cross by this. Liam Gallagher tweeted a response that I can’t quote here for obvious reasons but he was right. In the week when Cineworld shuttered dozens of cinemas it’s galling to hear one of the most powerful figures in government essentially throwing the whole arts sector to the dogs. Given I’m approaching the wrong end of the word count I’m not going to expound upon this further, suffice to say that without the succour of music, film, theatre, television, we are just monkeys flinging poo at each other in treetops. Shakespeare may have put it better but this is what he meant.

Talking of music, Fleet Foxes emerged in the early 2000s with an album of warm, woodland harmonies that wrapped the listener in a folky hug while sat next to campfire. Their new album is called Shore and it’s exceptionally good. At 6am on a Friday morning it sounds like it was composed by angels. I urge you to listen. Here’s one of the tracks.

See you next week.

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