I am writing with a mild pain in one arm, having received my first dose of the Oxford vaccine yesterday evening. Alongside the scientists, I must also applaud whoever had the wit to call this the ‘Oxford vaccine’, rather than simply naming it after a pharmaceutical company. I’ve never been asked to advise on the naming of any pharmaceutical brand, but as far as I can see the rules are that you first imagine the kind of menacing name a James Bond villain would choose for a front company, and then add a few extra Zs, Xs or other odd letter combinations, just in case the initial name wasn’t quite sinister enough. What does this do to the placebo effect, I wonder? I’m willing to bet that if you produced ‘Mr Muscle Artery Unblocker ‘ or ‘Prostate Duck’ rather than calling everything Zzoxxifilin or something, you might find a 20 per cent improvement in pharmaceutical efficacy, if just through better compliance.
In Europe it’s known simply as the AstraZeneca vaccine, and seems to give everyone conniptions. Here, the word ‘Oxford’ lends a sense of heritage and provenance. As well as containing some sort of university, the town itself has done a fine job in pioneering new approaches to TV detectives, shoes, marmalade and pillow-cases. Anything with Oxford in it sounds kind of reassuring. So I’m very happy with my Oxford vaccine.
It’s the Oxford pillowcase I’m suspicious about. What makes a pillow seem so much nicer when it contains an entirely superfluous hem around the outside? Have we been hacked? The hem would be the perfect hiding-place for Bill Gates to conceal a chip allowing him to control our dreams through the nearest 5G mast. I’m definitely on to something here, because when I ring the notoriously secretive bedding supplies industry and ask about this, they just hang up.
There is rarely any risk that I will stray on to Roger Alton’s turf and start writing about sport, since I come from what may be Britain’s least sporting family. A great-aunt of mine spent two years staying with a family in New Zealand, and word reached home that her hosts were quite sporty. In our family, ‘quite sporty’ means that you might sometimes glimpse the back page of a newspaper, or watch the world cup final when England aren’t in it, so no one gave it much thought. It was only years later we discovered that the family were called Hadlee, the first family of Kiwi cricket.
But I have found one sport captivating this year. The America’s Cup is interesting not so much as a competition, but more for the radical boat design involved. The AC75 yachts have no keel, and the hull appears to levitate in a strange equilibrium, supported only by one hydrofoil cantilevered off to leeward. If it has any antecedents in boat design, I suppose it must be the proa, a strangely asymmetric catamaran with which people experimented for a time.
Yet, when not foiling, the boat looks like a monohull. Now obviously I’ve never sailed on such a boat, and perhaps when you’re on board at 50 knots the whole thing makes sense. But when watching on YouTube, it creates the strange sensation in the viewer that the laws of physics have been broken. You keep having to remind yourself that no witchcraft is involved. It is so sense-defying and seemingly bonkers that, watching the final stages of the competition last week, I realised that, had one of my children come to me at the age of seven and said ‘Dad, I’ve designed a new kind of boat’ and handed over a crayon-sketched design for an AC75 yacht, I would have been too embarrassed to stick it on the fridge.