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Speed Read – swinecraft and the forbidden beaches of imagination

Every week the Friday Speed Read bounds up to you like an excitable puppy with the biggest news stories of the past five days in its mouth looking for attention, for treats, for love.

Sometimes you’ve just got to go with your first instinct. Actually, that’s some pretty terrible advice come to think of it and I am regretting my first sentence already. Humans being what they are, messy, impulsive, overly-fond of chaos, it’s often only our ability to think twice about something that prevents us from getting into all sorts of bother. And even then it doesn’t always work and we get into all sorts of bother anyway. But sometimes, just sometimes, our first instincts are the sharpest, wisest and revelatory and we need to let ourselves be hostages to their will. All of which is just a wind-baggy way of over-explaining why, despite the week’s news being as serious, as ever, I am going to begin this edition of The Friday Speed Read writing about pigs playing computer games.

I will admit to not knowing much (anything) about Purdue University in Indiana but it would seem that its Number 5 ranking in the list of Most Innovative Universities in America is not simply a nice badge to slap on its website. Imagine the Teams meeting between staff in their Animal Welfare Science department: does anyone have any new ideas, any academic strategies about how we might climb even higher on the Most Innovative Universities list? How about rounding up some pigs and seeing if they’re able to operate joysticks with their snouts to play computer games in return for food? Great idea. Why not? It something to do isn’t it?

And to cut a short story even shorter, it turns out that they can. Or at least two pigs called Omelette and Hamlet (good names) can and now happily spend their days eating crisps on the sofa while playing a range of classic games: Swinecraft? Pork Man? Supe-boar Mario? Porknite? (and yes, these puns are weaker than I’d like but you try and come up with some of your own at 7.15am). All of which is enough to distract us from the travails of the modern world for a few moments until remembering the plot of Animal Farm and starting to worry that this playing video games thing is just the start. If pigs can use a joystick then they can fly planes (pigs WILL fly). And then overthrow us.  And then make us their servants. Okay, maybe just one more game of Lara Croft: Sty Raider first.

Anyway, that’s 400 words of your life that you won’t get back and I’m not even sorry. But I am cold. It’s been cold hasn’t it? And as you know, there’s nothing that the UK media likes more than looking out of the window at weather phenomena and writing down what it sees. There’s clearly some special verb-trigger that is pulled in media houses when the temperature gets below a certain point; it’s not just cold, Britain is being “blasted”, as the temperatures “plummet” and the nation “shivers”. In recent years of course, we’ve added zoomorphism (and I’m not showing off here, I had to look that up) to our bank of descriptive resources and so the cold weather is the “Beast from the East”, a thick-coated, sharp-toothed, vodka swilling bear who brings ice and bone-chilling winds to the UK and is probably laundering money via the luxury London property market. In Braemar in Scotland, a temperature of –22.9C was recorded earlier in the week making it the coldest night since 1995. Shiver.

All of which makes the thought of a summer holiday even more enticing: a golden beach on the Algarve, sun-flecked tables outside a bistro in the South of France, scuba diving in the azure waters that fringe a Greek island . . . . all of which would be enticing enough in normal times but after everything we’ve been through they seem unreal, the stuff of myth, shadows of lost past; if only we can keep plodding on then one day, surely one day, we’ll get back to these places. But not yet. No way. Even UK holidays this summer seem an uncertain prospect at the moment. This week the government confused everyone (again) with contradictory comments about taking a UK break in the summer months. Matt Hancock said that he’d already booked a Cornish holiday for August only then for his colleague, the hapless Grant Shapps, to say that it was far too early to be making plans. A sentiment echoed by the Prime Minister a day later.

Who knows what’s going on? After a year of making promises it couldn’t keep, the government clearly doesn’t want to give people false hope. Remember “the country will be largely back to normal by Christmas” or even, “We’ll have turned the tide on the virus in twelve weeks” but even so, hope is what keeps us all going isn’t it? Even if we can’t actually go to Cornwall in the summer because everything’s either unfeasibly expensive or all booked up (likely both) then the thought that we could is actually very powerful. Oh to live again in a world of the possible.

In other Covid news, the steady decline in the infection numbers, in deaths and hospital admissions has continued this week and the number of vaccinations has risen again. Over 13.5 million people have now been given a first dose of vaccine and the government’s target of 15 million does by February 15th looks certain to be reached. Which is absolutely amazing however you look at it. There was some darker vaccine news this week when it was revealed the Oxford jab has very little effect against the South African variant of Covid-19 and although scientists say that they’ll have fixed this by the autumn it’s clear that we’re not going to eradicate this disease anytime soon. Tough new quarantine rules were also announced this week for people arriving in the UK from a “red” list of countries, with fines of £10,000 and even 10-year prison sentences (!) for anyone not following the rules.

This morning (Friday), official figures showed that GDP in the UK dropped by 9.9% in 2020, the biggest fall since 1709 (and maybe ever given that economic record keeping in the early C18th consisted of one man writing things down in a book and he was often asleep on or on a long lunch). There’s no surprise in this, in fact the figures are actually a little brighter than many predicted and there was even small economic growth in Q4 of 2020.  But however you spin it, the modern economy has never seen such a shock and we should remember that behind the statistics are many, many people who are struggling, their jobs and businesses lost, their misery compounded with each new setback. Let’s hope (that word again) that predictions of a spectacular economic recovery later in the year are not just breaths in the wind.

I’ve not got time to tell you why you should watch It’s a Sin on Channel 4 (and given the viewing figures you probably have done so already) suffice to say that it may been one the best pieces of British television of the last 30 years. And, for once, that’s no hyperbole.

Founding member of The Supremes Mary Wilson died this week leaving behind the kind of songs that you’d have to be missing most of your vital organs not to like. Here’s one of the very best.

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