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Speed Read – the ballad of the six ravens (haul away)

Every week The Friday Speed Read ties its shirt around its waist and sings songs of lost loves and fantastical foreign lands as it hauls in the biggest and best stories of the past five days caught in its summary nets

Sometime during the years following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, after Cromwell’s often calamitous and largely fun-free experiment with republicanism (and the specificity of the date is unimportant as the whole thing is almost certainly made up anyway) King Charles II met a witch. The detail of their conversation has been lost to time but essentially it progressed as follows:

Witch:                 Hello King Charles II. Nice wig.

KCII:                    Thanks. You’ve clearly got excellent taste but you smell like a sewer.

Witch:                 Sewers won’t be installed in London until the mid C19th.

KCII:                    Well, you smell worse than a Frenchman then. How did you get in?

Witch:                 I’m a witch. Plus I know that you keep a spare key under the bin.

KCII:                    Bins won’t be invented until  . . .

Witch:                 Enough bantz Charlie! I’m here to prophesise.

KCII:                    Bless you.

Witch:                 Now listen here. Unless you keep six ravens installed at the Tower of London at ALL TIMES, the Kingdom, and I can’t stress this enough, will fail!        

KCII:                    Six?

Witch:                 Yes.

KCII:                     Six ravens?

Witch:                 Six ravens yes. Not five. Not two. But six. At least. I mean you could probably have eight. Or more. That’s your call I guess. But the point is you must keep at least six ravens at the tower or your KINGDOM WILL FAIL.

KCII:                    What’s so special about ravens?

Witch:                 I just really like ravens. They are my strong favourite of the Corvid family.

KCII:                    I’m more of chough man myself.

Witch:                 I’d heard rumours to that effect. But heed! Heed my words King Charles II! Oh look over there . . . !

The witch dashes out of the room

KCII:                    Zounds! She hath disappeared! I must take this raven stuff seriously I reckon because I’m really quite against my kingdom failing. Bring me the Master of the Crows!

Jack Daw            Your majesty.

KCII                     Woah! How come you were hiding in that cupboard Jack?

Jack Daw            I just really like cupboards.

Three hundred and fifty-six years later and this week The Tower of London announced that Merlina, “Queen of the Tower Ravens” was missing, presumed dead. Sad news indeed for Merlina, her keepers and, perhaps the country. Even though seven ravens remain you’ve got to think that it’s a shockingly bad omen given the entirely plausible prophesy that’s been faithfully rendered above. And you thought 2020 was rubbish.


None of which nonsense is meant to in any way underplay or trivialise the grimness of our current predicament. It’s been another tough week for all of us with infection records tumbling and the Covid-19 death toll in the UK now standing at over 100,000. Some have predicted that it could reach as high as 150,000 before things begin to improve. This week has seen all sorts of analysis about exactly how bad the pandemic has been in terms of mortality rates with conclusions ranging from “pretty terrible” to “almost without precedent” and if you’ve not looked away from the news this week (and who could blame you if you have?) then you’ll have seen the photographs of overflowing hospital wards, queues of ambulances and headlines bearing witness to a system on the brink of collapse. It’s bad. It’s likely worse than even the darkest moments of 2020. It’s tough to watch.

It’s perhaps unsurprising then that the lockdown rules, their specifics and people’s adherence to them have been the thread that’s run throughout the week. Someone this week calculated just how many changes to the rules there have been in England since the start of the pandemic and, unhelpfully, I’ve now lost the piece of paper on which I noted down the answer. But it was a lot, enough to make me take note of it (and then lose the note) and although many of these changes are explicable given the need to keep the economy alive, even if it has been at times on a life support machine, and to return freedoms to people after months of restrictions, no one can really deny that the whole thing has been massively confusing. The Prime Minister with typical clumsiness rode into this confusion on his bicycle after being pictured pumping the pedals in Stratford, seven miles from Downing Street. While not at Cummings-esque levels of rule breaking, many wondered how the PM’s jaunt was permitted given the lockdown rule requiring us all to stay within our “local area” when exercising.

When pressed, a Downing Street spokesman was unable to answer the question.

Friday’s headlines, in the right wing press at least, speak of hints that lockdown is beginning to work: “At last  . . . infection rates in retreat” (The Mail); “Dare we hope the tide is turning?” (The Express) and it does seem that the much-discussed R-rate is dropping in many places. But it’s clear there’s a very, very long way to go and that the government needs to urgently deliver on its optimistic predictions for the roll-out of the vaccination programme before anything like “normality” returns. Not that I can really remember what that is.

Quickly to America then and the aftermath of last week’s Trump-whipped attack on the Capitol. As they said they would House Democrats drew up Articles of Impeachment and after a brief debate the House voted to impeach Donald Trump for a second time. As you’ll have heard, this is the first time in US history that a President has been impeached twice (and remember it’s only the fourth time it’s happened overall) and means that the Trump legacy, whatever else is said about it, will forever more begin with this fact. Whether or not he is actually convicted will depend on the outcome of his trial in the Senate which will take place after next week’s inauguration of Joe Biden. But you’d imagine none of this will have hurt Trump as much as having his Twitter account taken away. Worries about free speech aside, just enjoy the silence . . . .

Finally, something that’s so definitively 2021 that the rest of the year is going to have to work very hard to provide a better defining example and that’s the current popularity of sea-shanties on Tik Tok. That’s right, the songs sung by sailors in the C18th to keep spirits up as they hauled ropes and nets and whatever else they hauled in those days and which in recent decades have been the preserve of cider-swilling folk music-types (a fraternity of which I am proud to be a part-time member) have suddenly become massively popular on Tik Tok. I’m not going to explain Tik Tok largely because I don’t really understand Tik Tok but what I do know is that the sight of thousands of users lip-syncing to C19th New Zealand shanty The Wellerman has lifted my spirits considerably.

See for yourself. (I can’t stop watching this – it’s the way the joy creeps up on him that’s so blimmin’ heart-swelling).

Maybe the ravens thing is nonsense after all.

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