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Speed Read – Discombobulation, the Norman conquests and a shot of pure good news

Every week, The Friday Speed Read plants seeds of interest in the raised bed of current affairs and waits as the rain and sun coax shoots of entertaining prose from their dormancy and sends them snaking towards the heaven of your eyes

There’s something about the four-day week after a bank-holiday weekend that I find discombobulating; not least I suppose the opportunity to use the word ‘discombobulating’ which admittedly does have a pleasing tone and rhythm to it but is hardly the everyday vocab of the breakfast table or the bedroom. “The lack of Shreddies this morning has really discombobulated me” or “My darling, discombobulate me now or I shall go quite mad!”. Anyway, the sensation of everything being slightly out of whack caused by Tuesday feeling like a Monday, Wednesday feeling like a Tuesday and Thursday feeling that rainy day spent with a cousin sometime in late 90s when you visited the Zoo by mistake and an emu ate your lunchtime pasty, lends the whole week a slightly surreal timbre.

And so with the news this week, or certainly my perception of it (if a traditional Labour seat falls in the north of England and no one is around to hear it, does Kier Starmer make a sound?), which has all carried a sense of detachment, as if it’s happening slightly out of the normal boundaries of reality. Or maybe I’ve drunk too much coffee. Either way, this week’s Speed Read is shaping up to be a whimsier-than-usual collection of pith and bluster.

Or at least it was but then I got cross. And you’re going have to forgive this foray into ire for a paragraph or two but I’ve got to get this out of me before I can return to stories of seagulls running pop-up tofu bars or Belgian farmers invading France (only one of these stories is true). In the list of subjects that get some corners of the British press stampeding for the front-page block capitals, there’s very little that’s higher than the chance to have a pop at the French. Nothing new about this of course. If you asked your average Anglo-Saxon in 1065 whether he’d like boeuf bourguignon with haricots verts for his tea then you’d have got very short shrift indeed and a promise that a French king, with his garlic and his enhanced pension provision for workers would never rule England. And so passed a thousand years, several wars and the rise and fall of a political union, but little has really changed. So this week, when the Prime Minister despatched two Royal Navy gunships to prevent a blockade by French fishermen protesting at curtailed fishing rights around Jersey after Brexit, certain areas of the media slapped their thighs in excitement.

Unsurprisingly, in the face of a military intervention, the French fishermen decided against a blockade and sailed back to port. A sensible decision and one that perhaps suggests that talking about a problem is a better idea than direct, deliberately inflammatory action. However, the Daily Mail’s Friday headline is as follows: “Le Grand Surrender” but with a lead-in sentence as follows: “After our gunboats go into Jersey, French fishermen execute a familiar manoeuvre . . .” This idea of the French as serial cowards, surrendering when things get tough, is as old as Agincourt but has a more recent antecedent in the second world . . . . . I think I’m getting boring now so I need to shake myself and grab a coffee and return for a less hectoring second-half to this week’s column BUT lazy stereotypes are cynical and dangerous and to see them plastered across the front page of daily newspaper really gets my goat (ma chèvre). And I like my goat. And I don’t like to see him got.

Anyway, on to other matters. At the time of writing (it’s currently 7.46am), it’s looking like it’s been a great night for the Tories in the various local elections held on what was called by some, in a rather silly, Americanesque fashion, Super Thursday. Most notable of the results so far is that from the by-election in Hartlepool, a seat that’s been Labour since its creation in 1974. Well, it’s not Labour anymore following an absolutely huge win for the Conservative candidate. With council results all over the country expected to similarly terrible for the Labour Party it’s going to be a rubbish weekend for Kier Starmer. Despite the unprecedented challenge of leading a party of opposition during a pandemic, it’s clear that his bigger problem is that thousands of previously Labour-supporting voters now prefer Boris Johnson. And don’t care about who paid for his wallpaper.

In other news, the UK’s fight against Covid-19 continues to go well. And if that is a bit an understatement, it’s a deliberate one given the fact that we’ve all got carried away in the past thinking that this blasted disease is behind us. The vaccine programme continues to be massive success – 52% of the population has now had at least a first dose – and the impact on death rates really is better than anyone dared hope. The vaccines, for the moment at least, appear to be working incredibly well. In other vaccine news, Moderna, the manufacturer of one of the three vaccines currently being injected into arms in the UK, announced this week that in early trials a modified version of their original recipe (which I am certain isn’t the correct term) has been successful in neutralising the effects of the much discussed South African and Brazilian Covid variants. If this is true, then there really might be a chance of ending the pandemic.

And if you want more good news for a Friday, then yesterday the Bank of England raised its GDP growth forecast for 2021 to 7.25% which is the highest lead in national output since 1941. This will bring the economy back to roughly where it was pre-Covid (and the effects of Brexit have been masked by the pandemic so there still may be devils among the details) so there’s not some sort of incredible boom coming down the tracks but coupled with lower-than-feared unemployment figures, it doesn’t take economics professor (which is helpful given that my sole credential in this area is a Grade B in GCSE statistics) to tell you that this is most definitely positive news and that you should probably have that glass of wine.

Today, the government is expected to announce the first destinations on its “green list” of countries of which you don’t need to quarantine on your return when travel restrictions ease on May 17th. If you fancy a flight to Portugal this summer, I suggest you get online quick as fares have doubled in the past three days. The list of non-restricted destinations is expected to slowly expand as we approach the summer which means I might get my two weeks of cheese and wine among those surrendering French after all. A month ago I thought that this would be impossible.

If only the weather was a bit warmer and if only the finale of Line of Duty had been a little less underwhelming (other opinions are available but not many) but you know what, I’m feeling good. Things are getting better. We’re doing okay. Oh yes, that story about a Belgian farmer invading France? Essentially, he moved a 200 year-old border-marking stone to more easily use his tractor and in doing so made France 2.29 metres smaller. He’s promised to put it back. Aurélie Welonek, the mayor of nearby French town Bousignies-sur-Roc, said ““We should be able to avoid a war.”

Phew.

I watched Rocket Man last night and so with only oblique references to the week’s news, here’s some classic Elton to lead us into the weekend.

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