They are getting themselves terribly worked up about that new 50 pence coin commemorating our departure from the European Union. By ‘they’ I mean those people in the Brexit Derangement Syndrome intensive care ward, wired up to saline drips, attended to day and night, occasionally afforded a few thousand volts of ECT when things get really bad, but still foaming, still beside themselves with apoplexy.
Brexit spoilt our social lives for three and a half years. I was in Austria in a house party of 20 Britons when the result came through. Sixteen of us had voted Remain (three while ‘holding their noses’) and four had voted Leave. The Leave voters stayed silent while the rest of us raged about the stupidity of the voting public. One of the party got busy cancelling a long-planned canal-boat trip with a lifelong friend who she knew had voted Leave.
My hometown of Nanjing is more than 300 miles away from Wuhan but my family there, like Chinese families everywhere, have been gripped by the coronavirus story. We use WeChat (a Chinese version of WhatsApp) to share medical tips, the latest intel and even a spattering of dry jokes.
A snippet of information from an official bulletin — passed on by my aunt — jumped out at me. The disease had made its way to Nanjing, with three patients reported.
What was Brexit for? After finally taking Britain out of the European Union, the Prime Minister can now start to give us his answer — and the opportunity in front of him is pretty clear. He could speed up, perhaps double, the rate of economic growth by unleashing innovation. After leaving the slow steaming European convoy, Britain must not chug along but go full speed ahead. That means rediscovering trial and error, serendipity and swiftness — the mechanisms by which the market finds out what the consumer wants next.
H.G. Wells got it right in his comic novel The History of Mr Polly, where the wake is so much more fun than the wedding breakfast. How often have you come home from a wedding feeling slightly nauseous from an overdose of cheap champagne and fake bonhomie? Yet a funeral can be heartwarming and inspiring; a celebration, a gathering, without the flimflam and interminable jollity.
But how many of us will make plans for that final reckoning? How many will decide on the venue, the music, the food and flowers? Most likely it will be your relatives who will choose the coffin in the funeral director’s brochure (£265 for cardboard, rising to £1,990 if you want one in oak with the Head of Christ carved on the side).
In the early hours of 13 December, I called my newspaper in Berlin and suggested we run a piece about what might happen on Brexit day, 31 January 2020. For a second the line went strangely quiet. ‘Hello? Last night’s result means Brexit,’ I said to my colleague. ‘It’s really happening.’ I imagined the news slowly penetrating her mind. It took a while to sink in and no wonder. Throughout the years of obstruction and stagnation in Britain, many of us in Germany allowed ourselves to think Brexit wouldn’t ever happen.
Feasting on the remnants of my edible Christmas presents during the otherwise frugal month of January, I experienced a frisson when I opened the box of Thorntons ‘Continental’ chocolates.
For anyone who grew up in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the word ‘Continental’ carries with it a waft of balmy air from the Mediterranean, a sense of longed-for glamour, pleasure and breakfast on a balcony, unavailable on this rainy, cut-off island.
‘Do you want me to scan your temperature?’ asks the receptionist, brandishing an infrared thermometer. Arriving at my hotel in Shanghai, I have a hacking, chesty cough. I picked the wrong week to contract this year’s bout of normal, perfectly healthy winter flu. In China, there is now only one illness.
Like Christmas in the West, the Spring Festival (or Chinese New Year) is always the time when big cities shut down.
The debate over whether Big Ben should bong to mark Brexit isn’t the first time the famous bell has caused consternation. Listeners to a BBC radio news bulletin in 1949 were horrified when the chimes failed to sound. They had to wait until a later bulletin for an explanation: the clock was running four minutes slow because a swarm of starlings had gathered on the minute hand.
In fact, right from the start there were problems with the Great Bell.