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Speed Read – the hope we can stand after all

This week, The Friday Speed Read has had its haircut for the first time since late 2019 and feels all the better for it. However, if you believe hair length might equate with word count then you may well be disappointed.

It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand – John Cleese as Brian Stimpson, in the 1986 film Clockwise.

Has anyone seen Clockwise since the late 1980s? I realise that a large percentage of people reading this won’t even have heard of this little nugget of British cinema let alone have a view on how well / terribly it has aged. I remember enjoying it but then I also remember enjoying the Dukes of Hazzard so my judgement is probably not to be trusted. Anyway, the point is that the above quote, widely and erroneously attributed to everyone from Brian Clough to Sophocles to Katy Perry (okay, not Katy Perry) was actually penned by screenwriter and dramatist Michael Frayn for the aforementioned Cleese vehicle and for people of a British persuasion has always been something of a touchstone.

And this week, these words have been banging around my head like a moth in bathroom.

The reason for this, of course, is because of the news that broke on Monday afternoon that there have been very encouraging results in early tests of the so-called “Oxford vaccine”, developed at record-smashing speed by brilliant people in Oxford to counter the rapacious and unforgiving blight that is Covid-19. And by encouraging results, we’re talking that one, it’s safe to use on humans (which apparently is far from a given in vaccine development) and two, that it induces “strong immune responses in both parts of the immune system.” Let’s put aside the fact that I’d no idea that the immune system had two parts and take a moment to reflect that this is potentially incredible news. It’s not often the phrase “world changing” is anything more than a hyperbole but if the vaccine does indeed work against Coronavirus then if anything it’s going to be an understatement.

But let’s quickly append a few caveats: this was still a relatively small trial and the potential vaccine may yet prove to be ineffective in “real world” contexts and then of course there’s the challenges of licensing, manufacture and distribution to a global population of 7.8 billion. As the trial moves to its next phase of testing in countries such as South Africa and Brazil, it should be a time of cautious optimism rather than party-throwing elation.

Mind you, try telling that to the UK press.

Here’s a selection of Tuesday’s headlines: “The Covid Buster”; “Vaccine for Christmas”; “Vaccine for Christmas” (the Mirror and the Mail in rare as hen’s teeth headline synergy); “Breakthrough vaccine could be ready by end of year”; Hopes of Covid vaccine rise”; “UK buys 90m potential vaccine doses as breakthrough hopes rise”  . . . . you get the idea. There’s been little since England reached the World Cup semi-final (apologies to readers in the other home nations) that has united the newspapers in such an outpouring of unfettered joy.

And who can blame them? There can’t be anyone who’d not wish for a swift eradication of this blasted disease; to consign phrases such as “second wave” to the lexicon of history; to be freed from the constant stomach-griping worry about jobs, money and health. If we really end 2020 with a viable chance of raising a glass to a more hopeful, prosperous 2021, a world distant from the dark months of March, April and May then it would be the best New Year’s Eve ever. And that’s coming from someone who thinks New Year’s Eve is usually the most overrated celebration in the calendar.

The hope. It almost aches.

But hope is a choice. And much like we’ve all had to choose not to be overwhelmed by everything that’s been thrown at us so far this year, let’s choose hope on this rather damp Friday. It’s far, far better than the alternative.

In more prosaic news, this week also saw the publication of a long-delayed report by the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee on potential Russian interference in both UK elections and the Brexit referendum. Its conclusions were widely expected: that Russia did indeed peruse a policy of interference in elections but as for the Brexit vote, “the UK government actively avoided looking for evidence” of Russian meddling. That’s not to say that there was interference but also that’s not to say that there wasn’t. In an unexpected analogy, it’s rather like the noises that I hear at night in the loft above my bed. I hear faint scuttling. It could be mice. It could be a bird. It could, at a stretch, just be the wind though the cracks and creases of what is a fairly old house. Am I going to investigate? Er no. No, I’m not. And this is JUST LIKE RUSSIA.

Today is of course “Face Mask Friday” in England; the day when masks are made compulsory in shops, takeaways, banks, stations and indoor shopping centres. Failure to wear one could result in a £100 fine, although it’s unclear who is going to enforce the rule and issue the fines. Several supermarkets have already said that they’re not going to stop people entering their stores without masks and you can’t help but worry that this is all heading towards another national split – the mask-wearers versus the mask-refusers and it’s not going to be pretty. “Masking for Trouble” said the Metro on its Friday front page and it’s hard to not think that they’re right.

A glance across the Atlantic sees a volte-face of epic proportions from President Trump who after months of playing down the threat to US from Coronavirus, encouraging states to reopen and, memorably, suggesting that the disease may be vanquished by injecting bleach, has decided that face masks are actually a good idea and should be worn. With four million cases and nearly 150,000 deaths it should seem extraordinary that it’s only now in the face of plummeting approval ratings and November’s fast-approaching election that Trump has decided to fundamentally change his position; but of course when it comes to this president, the extraordinary is mundane, the shocking is standard and that which is false is pedalled as truth.

Surely, surely he won’t win in November. It’s that hope thing again.

And finally, let yourself be cheered as we enter the weekend by the story of Jess Lockwood from Ipswich who rescued a tiny, featherless blue tit chick from certain death after finding it in her garden and nursed back to health. Now 10 weeks old Dinky (for this is its name), believes that Jess is his mother and now refuses to leave her side. “I think I have a friend for life,” said Jess, capping off the kind of feelgood story that’s probably a metaphor for something if you want to be so.

That’s your lot. Have a hopeful weekend. See you next week.

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