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Speed Read – the sound of one nation clapping

Every Friday, even in lock down, the Speed Read exists to bring you the news in a longer, more meandering form than necessary. We’ll be here as long as you need or want us and probably a bit after that as well.

As a species, we’ve always been fond of symbols and metaphors as means to make sense of the essentially nonsensical business of this thing called life. Maybe it’s one of the measures by which we can be judged unique as a species, along with opposable thumbs, wonderfully complex linguistic systems and Taylor Swift. I say maybe, because for all we know, spiders may look to the reddening heavens of a spring evening and intone in whichever clicks and whistles pass as spider chat: “red sky at night; spiders will bite”. Or something. (Sorry, you’re going to have to bear with me a bit this week: fourteen days into isolation and there’s only so much a daily dose of Parks and Recreation can do to stave off cabin fever). Raising glasses, saluting, exuberant dance moves . . . all of these and many more ticks and habits we use as a shortcut to expressing what we think, what we feel and know.

You could argue that sometimes we read too much into such rituals; sometimes they exist only because convention says that they should but occasionally some basic piece of human behaviour expresses more than a library’s worth of sentiment. Last night at 8pm millions of people around the UK opened their front doors, emerged onto balconies and flung their windows wide in order to clap their hands in public. They did it to express their support for the NHS at a time of unprecedented challenge, when frontline medical staff are under-resourced, overstretched and vulnerable to a disease that it far more deadly than the “no worse than the flu” description we were all telling each other a month ago. Of course, clapping isn’t going to help with any of that but what it did do, movingly so, is demonstrate that overwhelmingly people care. People understand the heroic efforts of the NHS and all the other professions that are keeping us alive in these dark times. People are grateful. And after three years of dissonance and fracture, of snipe and snark, only the cold-hearted would not reach for the metaphor: a nation united, finally; facing its greatest foe for decades yes, but doing it together.

Feel free to stop reading now. The next 600 words aren’t going to match the paragraph above as I try to make sense of a second week in isolation. Maybe that hoary old cliché of the human ability of adapt is a cliché for reason (in that it’s true) but this week felt a little more “normal” than the previous one. The sunshine definitely helped. There was a point on Wednesday that those people lucky enough to have private outside space would have looked up to see a perfect blue sky and felt a fragrant spring breeze dancing on their cheeks and, just for a moment, they’d have been forgiven a few moments of pleasurable respite. A story broke that Covid-19 testing kits would soon be available and some scientists posited that a large percentage of the population may already have had the virus without knowing. Despite the now-stricter lockdown, things were looking up.

But of course, such lighter moments were quickly tempered by the reality of an ever-accelerating crisis: the surge in cases in both London and the West Midlands; a new ‘mega’ hospital being created at the cavernous Excel Centre; stories of young, fit people catching (and in some tragic cases dying from) Covid-19; stories of idiots having barbecues and strolling in groups along the seafront as if nothing in the world was amiss; NHS staff having to travel to work on packed tube trains. And that’s not to mention the economic meltdown happening around the world; companies falling apart, whole industries collapsing like card houses which of course means millions upon millions of people who are losing their livelihoods with all the profound worries and stress that go hand in hand with such an outcome. Is there a comfort in knowing that you’re not alone? That the bleak turn your personal narrative has taken is shared with people up and down your street, town, country and planet? Not really. It still hurts. It’s still terrifying.

So, without wanting to belittle people’s experiences or indulge in some mindless optimism that by this time next week everything’s going to be significantly better, I think we could all do with a few things for which to be grateful. This is especially true given the news this morning (that could have come straight from the Hollywood version of this epidemic) that even the Prime Minister has tested positive for Covid-19. We wish him well. In this spirit, here are number of bullet points that when read, should allow us to push into the weekend with at least a few good thoughts alongside all the worry.

  1. Joe Wicks. If you’ve not been doing his 9am workout then your legs are probably not aching but you’ll have missed a daily dose of positivity, lovely hair and brain-fuzzing levels of endorphins. Mr Wicks. We salute every perfectly toned inch of you.

  2. Facebook. No longer evil but uniting communities and helping local businesses both stay afloat and deliver supplies to people who’d otherwise be cut off.

  3. Video calling facilities. Whether you Zoom, Hangout, Team, Whatsapp, Skype or Houseparty, seeing the pixelating faces of our friends and loved ones is imperfect but also utterly, utterly brilliant. Essential even.

  4. Disney+. Even if you just do the free 7-day trial and then cancel, you can cram your life with a panoply of content that in normal times would be far too-sugar sweet to ingest in such concentrated form but right now just feels like a hug. And Cars 2.

  5. Next Thursday at 7pm the National Theatre is streaming One Man Two Governors for free on YouTube. Please don’t let the thought of James Corden put you off. It’s one of the funniest things you will see. And if it’s not then please Zoom me and I’ll tell me why you’re wrong.

  6. The British public. The Government asked for volunteers to help the NHS during the current crisis. As of this morning, 600,000 have signed up. By any measure, that’s incredible.

You’ll have your own examples. But the point is, we are getting through this. That’s a flimsy phrase I know and one that doesn’t get close to expressing our collective experience right now but it’s all I have. And we are. We are getting through this. And it’s tough and sad and scary and we’ve all had (and will have) days where it all feels too immense to navigate but it will end. And we will emerge. And hopefully the sun will still be shining.

Stay at home. Wash your hands. Then raise a glass to us. And then raise another to you.

See you next week.

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