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Every week The Friday Speed Read does its best to entertain and inform you in a manner that avoids irritation and libel suits. Thus far, it’s avoided the latter while regularly not avoiding the former for which we offer apologies.
The English language is blessed with many beautiful-sounding words, mellifluous to the ear and emollients for the soul. One such example is the word “serendipity” which, if you’ll forgive a non-news-based early foray into the pleasing world of etymology, is derived from an old name for Sri Lanka (named Sarandib by Arab merchants) and first used in English by C18th writer, gadabout and wig-wearer Horace Walpole in a story about the “Three Princes of Serendip” who were always finding things they weren’t looking for.
And thus the word, serendipity: a chance discovery usually in a happy or beneficial way. If Bono had sung “And I still haven’t found what I’m looking for but what I have found is a box of After Eights in the back of the cupboard that I’d forgotten were there” it wouldn’t have fitted as neatly over The Edge’s strummings but would have provided the Joshua Tree album with a song about serendipity.
Famous serendipitous discoveries include the Post It Note, Velcro, the time I found a five pound note in a university library book about the performance history of Twelfth Night (my response: go straight to the bar), Penicillin (a game-changer in all respects) and now, perhaps, a significantly more effective way of administering the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for Covid-19.
Sadly, the word “perhaps” is a bit of a spanner in the works of today’s opening section because since this week’s triumphant announcement that the much-anticipated vaccine seems to have an efficacy rate of 90%, there’s been many questions raised about the accuracy of the reporting, the rigour of testing programme and the veracity of the 90% claim BUT I’ve had this opening planned for two days now and I wasn’t going to change it.
But if, and despite everything that 2020 has hurled at me I remain at heart an optimist, the Oxford vaccine does indeed lead a fightback against this damned disease, then the fact that UK trial participants were incorrectly given a half-dose followed by a full dose which led to a 90% efficacy rate (rather than the 62% rate for those given two full doses) will mean that rambling news columns in the future hail it as one of the definitive examples of serendipity of all time.
And that’s all I have to say about serendipity.
So are you excited for Christmas? Are you trimming and decking like nobody’s business? Laughing in slow motion as you sit with your loved ones around laden festive tables lit in the orange flicker-light of an open fire? Oh, no, that’s just an advert isn’t it? In reality, have you worked out what you’re going to do? This week the government announced that there’d be a five-day nationwide relaxation of the Covid restrictions over the festive period; five days during which (in England at least) up to three households can mix and then fall out on Boxing Day after too much sherry and too much of each other. “So here it is – mini Christmas” shouted the Sun’s Wednesday front page, punning on the festive classic.
This relaxation, while welcome, more than welcome, desperately needed after such a relentlessly grim year, does come with some significant caveats: not least the large parts of the scientific community calling it “madness” among other things. During the Thursday evening press conference during which the post-lockdown tiers were discussed (more of which in a moment), Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty urged people to avoid physical contact with elderly relatives around the Christmas tree. Paraphrased in the Friday papers, the advice seems to be: don’t’ kiss your Granny if you want her to live. All of which somewhat takes the shine of the bauble, so to speak.
The prospect of a festive respite during which you can legally, if not sensibly, revel in the company of those you may not have seen for months is of course incredibly alluring. The food, the drink, the silly games, the gifts, the long days on the sofa watching films, the feeling of having eaten too much cheese even if you claim there is no such thing as eating too much cheese . . . all of it a balm (“what are you giving him a balm for, it might bite him?”) to soothe the wounds of this year. Particularly given that January doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a barrel of laughs, particularly for those of us in Tier 3 of the post-lockdown restrictions that were announced yesterday. No fun for us. No pubs or meeting in gardens. Just more of the same albeit with haircuts. It sounds absurd now that any of us believed, or forced ourselves to believe, Johnson last March when he said that we’d have turned the tide on the virus in twelve weeks. Twelve weeks.
Anyway, I was going to say “let’s be positive” but first I need to mention Rishi Sunak’s budget statement on Wednesday when he revealed that GDP is going to have had its largest fall in output for 300 years by the time the year had ended. 11.3% perhaps doesn’t sound that massive; I mean it you ate 11.3% less of a pizza you’d still have eaten a very decent amount of pizza. But apparently the “pizza model” that I’ve just made up doesn’t apply to gross domestic product for which a 11.3% drop is nothing short of catastrophic. And that’s without even mentioning Brexit – which I’m not going to do here because it is Friday afternoon after all.
Let’s be positive. Vaccines are coming. We will get out of this. We will go back to the pub, the theatre, the cinema, the nightclubs, the stadiums; we will be able to kiss our grandmothers without killing them; the end is in sight. Surely. Please. Oh please, the end is surely in sight.
The other news this week kicks-off with the death of footballer Diego Maradona, famous for using his hand to score one goal against England the World Cup in 1986 and then using his feet to score another goal against England in the World Cup in 1986 that is undeniably one of the greatest goals in the history of the game. Not so much a goal as a three-act play infused with pathos, wonder, history, character, defiance, outrageous God-given skill and utter utter joy (unless you were supporting England when it happened. Which I was). And if you think all of that is just a load of hyperbole then we’re going to have to agree to disagree. Elsewhere, Donald Trump still hasn’t conceded the American election in which he was soundly beaten but yesterday he did pardon his friend Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI and some have speculated that he will also pardon himself for any crimes he may be convicted of during his presidency. You know what, I really don’t think I’m going to miss him when he’s gone. Talking of going, the makers of I’m a Celebrity . . . . were forced to deny that a load of non-native insects that had been shipped in to tip over contestants in this year’s Welsh-based version of the show had GONE (we got there) from the set and were happily setting up home in the wild.
Oh gosh, look at the word count. I need to stop. Our music guru Shaun is off today so I’m afraid you’re left with me who finds himself lining up a song from Taylor Swift’s album “Folklore” released earlier this year. It’s a fantastic collection of songs and this is coming from someone’s who can name you only one other track in her catalogue – “Single Ladies” (irony alarm). Anyway, a documentary about the album was released this week on Disney+. Serendipity indeed.