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Best in Show
Here are some words about an unforgettable year that we’d rather forget.
For the past few years the Speed Read Review of the Year has existed as some sort of reckoning of everything that fell under the news spotlight in the preceding twelve months; remembering the stories that got everyone talking and tweeting, the headlines that reminded us that The Great British Pun remains as fundamental to our national psyche as roast potatoes, served alongside a few personal reflections and good wishes for the new year cresting the horizon. But like with so much in 2020, this year it’s going to be different.
This was the year in which everything shrank. This was the year when, for the first time I can remember, I stopped reading the news (for a few weeks at least); my house became my office, my social life, my country, my world. It was the year in which just making it to another weekend felt like an achievement worth celebrating (with cider usually); the year in which I experienced for the first time such a wild range of contrasting emotions, from the bombast of joy to the sharp-teeth of fear to the sinking sands of sadness, often in the space of a single afternoon. This was also the year that I dropped the anonymous authorial voice in which I’d written the Speed Read for the previous three years and brought myself, brought my “I” to the column; not out of any sort of egotistical drawing back of the writerly curtain but because the only way I could respond to a world falling apart was to be as honest and personal as possible.
So here we go. This is my review of 2020. In years past this column would have been written from copious notes; this year I am just going feel my way through.
And we thought that 2020 was going to all be about Brexit. Back in January which, as you know, feels about ten thousand years ago, there was much ado about bonging. The UK was officially leaving the EU (and the transition period was beginning) and among those who were excited by such a fundamental change in our relationship with the world (of which there were many) existed a small cohort who got all frothy-mouthed about Big Ben ringing its bells at midnight of whatever day it was we were leaving (I can’t be bothered to look it up) to celebrate. Problem was, Big Ben (or Elizabeth Tower for those that care about being correct) was covered in scaffolding, its bells still, un-ringable. This of course was a national outrage with questions asked in Parliament and the Daily Express demanding that the bells be uncorked (or whatever you do with bells when you want them to ring again) immediately. Nothing happened. The bells didn’t ring. And the world continued to turn. For the moment at least.
Meanwhile, our new Prime Minister was enjoying the kind of political honeymoon that only an 80 plus majority in the House of Commons can give you. Johnson’s main policy at that time seemed to be swanning around the place, chest-puffed out like a Christmas robin still on the booze in January, playing a version of himself as if sketched by an ebullient ten-year-old. He could not have been more Boris. Boris squared. Boris cubed. And so, when meetings in Parliament were convened about something called Coronavirus (or Covid-19) that was spreading rapidly across China, Boris was far too busy being Boris to attend. Twice.
And listen, hindsight makes idiots of us all. And in early March we were all still swanning around thinking that everything would probably be alright. I made a very weak gag in a Speed Read in late February punning on Corona (which was a fizzy soft drink in the 80s) that was wisely cut by my ever-astute editor Kelly Pepworth but it does illustrate how quickly the crisis escalated. A few weeks later and rubbish jokes were unthinkable. Even good jokes were unthinkable.
You’ll have your own memories of the week we were all sent home. If you want to read the Speed Read from that Friday then it’s here. Although I don’t recommend it from a literary perspective (it contains some very poor writing and too many exclamation marks) what it does do is capture the sense of shock that we were trying, and failing, to process. As a business, we were all logging into something called “Microsoft Teams” for the first time, calling our colleagues to find out how bad things were (answer – pretty bad) and speculating when we might be back in the office. Someone thought May. Others thought it would probably be June. The Prime Minister said that we would have “turned the tide” on the virus within twelve weeks.
And so we entered the first national lockdown. The OG Lockdown. The one with idiots loading their shopping trollies with loo paper and pasta, Netflix binges (Tiger King and friends), sourdough, banana bread, Zoom chats with friends, Zoom chats with family, Zoom quizzes. Soon the weekends were so filled with Zooming that they stopped being a comfort and started being somewhat maddening; there were the daily press conferences at which the latest graphs of infections and deaths were published, the number of daily fatalities climbing ever more quickly: 200, 400, 600, 800 . . .every one of them leaving behind a grieving family and questions about why more people were dying in the UK than in any other EU country. Questions that at some point are going to need an answer. There was that god-awful cover version of Imagine that various celebrities thought might make us all feel better but actually made us feel sick. Furlough became a thing along with a Conservative government paying the wages of millions of people.
The economy crashed, whole sectors became inert: hospitality, entertainment, hair and beauty, sports and leisure. Hundreds of thousands lost their jobs, hundreds of thousands more spent sleepless nights worrying about how they were going to pay rent or the mortgage if they were next. The nation’s mental health took a battering like never before. If things appeared grim it’s because they were grim. Television pictures from hospitals showed wards stuffed with patients and staffed by heroes, exhausted, ill, often infected, battling to keep control of a crisis that defied control.
When Boris Johnson contracted Covid-19 and came, if reports are to be believed, pretty close to death, it felt like the disaster movie in which we were all cast was racing to its denouement: a county beaten by Coronavirus, its people buckled by fear and plague.
People being brilliant in terrible times
But, as trite as this might sound, it wasn’t all bad. Far from it. The sun shone and those lucky enough to have gardens spent many hours with their laptops outside; food supplies returned to something like normal and we ate well (too well in my case!); neighbours shopped for neighbours; communities cohered; Joe Wicks made us sweaty in our kitchens; kindness was everywhere; we really were in this together. Captain Tom raised over £20 million for the NHS and became the hero, the inspiration that we all needed; Marcus Rashford would also become a hero through a tireless campaign for free school meals, forcing both a government U-turn (one of many) and people to recalibrate their opinion of rich footballers; the air became cleaner as commuting became as unthinkable as kissing strangers in packed pubs or seeing indie bands in sweaty venues. We came out onto our doorsteps and clapped for the NHS and I won’t forget the sound echoing over my street, the next street, every street. At least the weather is nice we all said. Imagine lockdown in winter! Imagine how grim that would be . . . .
Can you see Barnard Castle?
The inevitable instinct of the storyteller is to bend facts into neatly linear forms in order to create dramatic heft (just ask the makers of The Crown – series 4 of which I thought was brilliant, regardless of what was or wasn’t true) and so it’s tempting to render Dominic Cummings’ lockdown-busting trip to Barnard Castle as the fulcrum point of the year, the moment when public unity was broken and cynicism returned. Whether this is true or not, Cummings’ non-apology coupled with Johnson’s slavish, embarrassing defence of his actions did undoubtedly undermine the government’s own instructions and introduced that element that’s so toxic for national unity: the belief that it’s one rule for them and another for us.
Fast forward to the summer and snatched holidays among shifting quarantine rules for returning travellers, dropping infection and death rates and then, hooray!, pubs re-opening. Star of 2020 Rishi Sunak gave us all some free cash to “Eat Out to Help Out” and then, for a handful of weeks, a part-time return to the office. But it didn’t last. Track and Trace wasn’t working anything like as well as it needed to and the second wave of Covid-19 was beginning to gain momentum. We had been warned that it would but most people didn’t want to believe it. Lockdown 2.0 was threatened. Winter was coming.
Away from the pandemic, the world was changing in other fundamental ways too. Changes that in more normal times would demand more words than I am going to use in their description now. In May a police officer in Minneapolis killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for eight minutes; Floyd’s dying words “I can’t breathe” became a totem for protests across the world against police brutality and the unjust and often violent suppression of black people. The Black Lives Matter movement surged; statues were toppled, street battles were fought and lots of people (me included, I must admit) posted a black square on their Instragram accounts in well-intentioned but entirely ineffective shows of solidarity.
Talking of America, can we just take a moment to enjoy the incontrovertible truth of this statement? Donald Trump lost the presidential election. Now I know he claims to the contrary but he’s wrong and it’s a credit to the institutions and constitution of the US that despite all his toxic bluster, all his four years of lies and mendacity, his war on truth, that in the end facts have beaten him. Reality bit. And bit hard. Two brief Trump takeaways from the year: his suggestion that injecting bleach may cure Coronavirus and the post-election press conference held between a crematorium and an erotic bookshop in the grounds of Four Seasons Total Landscaping. Yep it’s still funny.
We also mustn’t forget that one of Trump’s many grim legacies is the highest Covid-19 death rate in the world.
The reckoning / making peace
Okay, even accounting for the more generous word count allowed for the review of the year, I’ve got to bring this to a close soon. Usually, people are too busy getting on with actually living to realise that history is being made all around them; the participants of the Battle of Hastings didn’t take a break from pummelling each other and think “gosh, you know, one day someone’s going to make a lovely tapestry of all of this and school children will walk past it and shrug on their way to the gift shop to buy a rubber . . . . oh watch out for that arrow!”. But this year was different. This was 2020. A year that we knew as we were living it that it would be talked about for decades. Your children will ask you about it. For our grandchildren it will be a project in primary school. They’ll ask, in wide-eyed wonder, if it’s true that all the schools were shut for six months. Yes, we’ll say, yes they were. And that’s not even the half of it.
But as much as it’s been horrible. 2020 has been our year. A year we must own and with which we must make peace. We’ll be living its legacy for years, even decades to come and undoubtedly there are tough times still ahead. Tough times but hopefully also better times and I’ve not even had a chance to mention the miracles of science and the fact that as I write people are being vaccinated against this beastly disease that none of us had even heard of a year ago. That’s truly extraordinary.
And as we settle down for Christmas, as we wrestle with decisions about who we should and shouldn’t be seeing, let’s take as much pleasure as we can in doing nothing. In eating. In drinking. In wrapping ourselves in love and in duvets on the sofa and allowing ourselves to be happy that we’ve made it this far. That we’ve been knocked, bruised and upset but we’ve not been beaten. And let’s remember that there is one thing more contagious than Covid-19 – and that’s hope.
It’s been a tough year for our business as it has been for so many other businesses in the UK. But we’ve made it. We’ve changed. We’ve worked our blimmin’ socks off and we’re optimistic about the future. And that’s down great leadership coupled with an incredible team of people, people that I am proud to call my colleagues and friends. We’ve made a video this year instead of sending cards and Christmas cards that captures, I think, both the spirit of the moment but also the spirit of Speed. Please watch it here.