It all started at what every-one thought would be a routine meeting between Opec and non-Opec nations in Vienna. There were the usual fake smiles and firm handshakes in front of the cameras from the dignitaries. Bored journalists roused themselves to prepare to write stories they expected never to be read, before they could at last head to the pub. And then, out of nowhere, came a bombshell.
Downward pressure on oil prices from the coronavirus panic was posing an obvious risk to Saudi Arabia’s still heavily oil-dependent economy.
When America used a drone to take out an Iranian general a few weeks ago, it triggered a standoff between the two countries that barely moved oil prices. America was seen to have passed the first test of what Donald Trump hailed as ‘energy independence’. The US oil industry has surged over the past five years, making it the world’s biggest oil producer, and now a net exporter. The hope in DC has long been that this would turn the tide — not just on energy costs, but on the power dynamics in historically sticky relationships between democracies and dictatorships.
‘We are the United States of Amnesia,’ said Gore Vidal in 2004. These days, it’s more the United States of Dementia. In 2020, the country seems determined to choose between two elderly men who, it is fair to say, are some distance from sanity. Joe Biden, the 77-year-old who even aides admit has lost his ‘cognitive fastball’, has somehow emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee. Assuming that his candidacy or health don’t implode somehow between now and the party convention in July, Biden will face Donald Trump at the ballot on 3 November.
I’m a Texan as well as a physicist so I hope it doesn’t sound boosterish if I say that no nation has contributed more to basic science than Britain. No other country has such an uncanny aptitude for it. I’m not sure what combination of poetry and pragmatism makes this possible, but I don’t need to go far to find evidence. A few streets from where I work in Mayfair lies the Royal Institution, which earned more Nobel prizes in science than all of Russia.
Last Monday night and Tuesday were our Jewish festival of Purim, when we recall the events described in the Book of Esther. It is the oddest of all festivals. There is rejoicing, which starts a fortnight before at the beginning of the Jewish month of Adar. There’s a celebratory meal on the day itself. We send charitable gifts to the poor and presents to friends. There’s riotous noise during the reading of Esther whenever the name of the arch-villain Haman is mentioned.
It’s hard to think of a place more deserving of a post-Brexit boom than Grimsby. In the 1950s it had the largest trawler fleet in the world, brought in hundreds of tonnes of cod a day, and you could cross its harbour by walking over ships in the dock. But the Cod Wars were lost and the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy began to bite. Now Grimsby is one of the most deprived areas in the country, and its long road down to the docks is littered with shuttered shops.
So are we all going to die or is it going to fizzle out? In Naples the police drive along streets with loudhailers, warning everyone to keep indoors; in Britain the government declines to close schools, call off sporting fixtures and persuade people out of the pub. Something feels not quite right: either there is huge overreaction or under-reaction to Covid-19. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has not helped calm fears by announcing that the government has been working on a worst-case scenario of 80 per cent of the population catching the virus and 500,000 dying from it.
The whole of Italy is now in quarantine and infected by the kind of panic I imagine an invaded people feels as it waits for the enemy to knock on the door.
I work from home and suppose I must be thankful at least for that. I have just heard the youngest of our six children, Giuseppe, who is four, ask Carla, his mother: ‘Mamma, do you know why it’s called coronavirus?’ ‘No, bello, I don’t, tell me’ she replied.
The cellar room is almost silent save for the sound of slurping and spitting and the odd gentle sigh. One woman has her head buried in a bucket, while a chap lays his on the desk before raising a hand and asking for a refill. It has the air of a rather polite orgy, only everyone is fully dressed.
Welcome to the 67th blind wine-tasting Varsity match. The 14 men and women in the basement of Berry Bros & Rudd in St James’s have the most educated palates in Oxbridge.