Hang in there. Grim times come and go

Wake up and smell the 2021 coffee. Brexit is done and a vaccine is here


A healthcare worker holds a Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine at Christine E. Lynn Rehabilitation Center, in Miami, Florida on December 30, 2020. (Photo by Eva Marie UZCATEGUI / AFP) (Photo by EVA MARIE UZCATEGUI/AFP via Getty Images)

January 07, 2021 10:54

A couple of years back, I was taking morning coffee with the esteemed editor of this journal of record when we found ourselves in agreement that antisemitism does not sell. We were talking about newspapers, not T-shirts, but all the evidence showed that even in this paper, readers were being turned off by the A-word, especially when it was splashed across the front page. “But it’s out there,” sighed Stephen, “and we have to report it.” 

“Of course, you do,” I concurred. “It’s just so bad for business.’”

Today, I would say exactly the same about Brexit and Covid. Throughout 2020, one or the other led the daily news in print and online. And month by month, newspaper sales plummeted to an all-time low. The restrained and coherent Financial Times lost 36 per cent of its paid print readership (source: ABC). The Daily Mail was down 13 per cent. Every editor knew what was boring the readers, but what else could they do? Misery Brexit and killer Covid were out there and the papers had a duty to perform. It has been a rotten year for the inky trade.

There, however, endeth the bad news. Now, wake up and smell the 2021 coffee. Brexit is done and dusted; nothing to discuss except lorry trails and small fish. Covid is being fought with a barrage of vaccines that should bring relief to most of us by summer at least, turning our thoughts to what Maynard Keynes called “the economic consequences”, which is a completely fresh set of headlines.

As for antisemitism, well, where did it go? Two years ago, Jews were talking of leaving the country. Such was the climate of political harassment and online abuse. The Labour Party drove out all of its Jewish women MPs, except Margaret Hodge.  Party meetings were scheduled for Friday night or Yom Kippur specifically so that Jews could be excluded, or so it seemed. Jews were made to feel as unwelcome in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour as they were in former lands of oppression.

British citizens whose grandparents had been deported from Berlin and battered to death in Baltic states emerged from London consulates clutching newly minted German or Latvian passports as a hedge against Brexit and leftist fascism. Simon Sebag Montefiore told the Times that “virtually every Jewish family I know has discussed leaving Britain”. Twitter was a nest of Jew-snipers. Facebook flooded us with filth. Some publishers ran scared of my history, Genius and Anxiety. Too, er, Jewish?

And then it passed. Corbyn lost the election. His successor, Sir Keir Starmer, pledged to cleanse Labour of antisemites rather than Jews, forcing the suspension or resignation of dozens of activists including, for a few heady days, the former leader himself. Starmer did Mitzvah Day and Limmud and talked of Friday nights with his wife’s family. The barometer swung back from malignant to benign.

Who’s afraid now of Ken Livingstone, Naz Shah and Chris Williamson? Who even knows what IHRA stands for? Or why Corbyn had more references to Palestine than Islington in his constituency manifesto? It was an ill wind and only wonks and spads will remember the detritus it blew at us. Vigilance is still required but, unlike Boris Johnson’s father, no longer with foreign passports in hand.

Might that also be how Covid ends, not with a bang but a whimper? Right now, we’re in the thick of it with a daily death toll in the high hundreds, twice the number that Angela Merkel tearfully said would be “unacceptable” for Germany, which is now over 1,000. 

People are dying and ministers keep lying to a point where we turn for sanity to Jews, real or imagined, like the Cambridge statistician David Spiegelhalter, the Oxford vaccinologist Sarah Gilbert and the Sephardi CEO of vaccine-makers Pfizer, Albert Bourla. Jewish or not, their names give us comfort as the graph keeps spiking and the email pings times of the next shiva in our community.

But think where we could be this time next year, when it could all be over bar a residue of anti-vax Chasidim and unfortunate collaterals. We’ll still have to avoid crowds and stay alert, but Covid will no longer occupy our front pages and our dreams, any more than Brexit or Corbyn does now. In all previous plagues, the public memory went blank within months of their passing. In a bibliographic search for personal memoirs of the Spanish Flu, I found next to nothing in six languages.

So, this time next year, what will we have to talk about? There won’t be many films because they haven’t been made. Cruise liners will stay in dock and concert halls will be half-full. The one certainty is that my pledge to the editor to entertain you during Covid will expire, and this space can be filled once more by that best of things: good news.

January 07, 2021 10:54

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