The great pandemic of 2020 has led to an extraordinary expansion of government power. Countries rushed to close their borders and half of the world’s population were forced into some sort of curfew. Millions of companies, from micropubs to mega corporations, were prohibited from carrying on business. In supposedly free and liberal societies, peaceful strollers and joggers were tracked by drones and stopped by policemen asking for their papers.
You have to admit it, Operation Warp Speed is a good moniker. It’s the name for the American interagency programme, initiated by the Trump administration, to produce 300 million doses of a safe vaccine for Covid-19 by January. Who couldn’t get behind this all-hands national effort to defeat the virus and end the pandemic, excitingly named after the faster-than-light space travel in Star Trek? While we wait for clinical trials led by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca in the UK, America warps ahead.
‘Land of the Flee’, screamed the New York Post front page this week. Moving vans are lining up in Manhattan. Residents have had enough. It had been ‘another bloody weekend in Gotham’ with 21 people shot, and a rising wave of non-gun violence. At 11 a.m. on Saturday, a man leapt on top of a young woman on a subway platform in midtown and began grinding against her until a group of bystanders forced him to stop.
The monks of Downside Abbey in Somerset elected a new abbot last Thursday, according to sixth-century rules laid down by St Benedict. The next day, they sent an email notification saying they had voted ‘to make a new start and to seek a new place to live’. It was a shock to those who know the place. The monks will leave behind a beautiful abbey church built in the Gothic Revival style — its 166ft tower visible for miles around — a monastery and cloisters, the largest monastic library in Britain and a grand-looking public school with more than 300 pupils.
The cancellation of Wimbledon this summer deprived fans of their annual exercise in moralising. There is one topic SW19-goers love to complain about every year: the grunting sounds that players emit as they hit the tennis ball.
Maria Sharapova, who retired in February, was called the Queen of Screams. Her grunts were once recorded at 101 decibels, more than a Boeing 707 as it touches down. They even inspired a series of ringtones.
Boris Johnson has put a huge amount of stock in persuading reluctant civil servants to return to their desks in Whitehall. His campaign this week to get more people back to the office was tinged with the suggestion that those who were slow to return might be in danger of losing their jobs. This divided the cabinet, with Matt Hancock pointedly suggesting that he was happy with many in his department continuing to work from home.
To complete the Hajj is the pinnacle of Islamic worship, required once in the lifetime of every able-bodied Muslim who can afford the journey. In its 1,400-year history, the annual pilgrimage has been cancelled dozens of times, by wars, political strife and pandemics. As I found out when I made the journey, it is a swirling sea of humanity: some 2.5 million visiting Mecca over a few days, from all over the world.
When the Covid crisis came, worship was suspended.
The oldest churchyard in Torquay is being used by people openly having sex and sunbathing nude in broad daylight. This was how it was reported in the local newspaper, of course — ‘broad daylight’ is a phrase that is only ever used by subeditors trying to make things sound more depraved. (Who sunbathes except in broad daylight?) It was not the first such report since the pandemic began: in June, a couple were witnessed coupling in Brandwood Cemetery in Kings Heath, Birmingham; police were called amid concerns over public indecency, and fears that they may not even have been from the same household.
I cannot claim the gift of prophecy, but early this year — before lockdown panic-buying and the warnings of a dire wheat harvest causing bread price rises — I became a bread-maker. I dug around on the internet for a good recipe for sourdough, and found one padded out with the usual bloggery and waffle. Absent the philosophy and the pious musings, it gives a clear, sensible route to bread self-sufficiency.
Sourdough doesn’t need bought-in yeast, only a ‘starter’ of flour and water.