The coming year: light beginning to dawn, or an extension of gloom and foreboding?

Oxford is grey, wet and rather gloomy today: but the University's vaccine offers a bright hope

On New Year’s Eve Bernard Trafford was tickled by a bogus quote from Samuel Pepys’s diary doing the rounds on social media. But it also gave him food for thought about the coming year: light beginning to dawn, or an extension of gloom and foreboding? 


31st December 1665: “The Year of the Lord 1665 hath been such a terrible one for ye plague. I cannot wait for 1666, for which I have especial excitement to trye the new bakery that hath opened on Pudding Lane.”


If only the great diarist Samuel Pepys really had written that splendid entry that circulated on Twitter yesterday! Sadly, both the style and the very obvious employment of hindsight render it about as authentic as Dominic Cummings’s retro-altered blogs about the likelihood of a pandemic, and as credible as his reasons for visiting Barnard Castle back in 2020’s locked-down Spring.


At least this bit of fake old news (thanks to my friend Mark for that description) gave many of us a laugh on a night when those of us who would normally expect to celebrate together were obliged to do so virtually, making do with raising glasses on Zoom: use of that handy tool always serves to remind me all too forcefully how it substitutes only superficially for real face-to-face human contact. 


That bogus passage of Pepys sums up quite neatly how we feel, or would like to feel, at the start of 2021. In it he purports to relish the apparent end of the plague and plans to enjoy the coming year and restored freedoms it offers. While he has no idea of the danger, centuries later we know that his chosen bakery will encompass a second doom for the great city of London. Whoever penned the spoof was mischievously clever: I loved it.


So we enter 2021 with trepidation. Will the new vaccines which currently furnish us with hope prove to be the solution to the pandemic? Will the dawn apparently breaking develop into the light of success, leading us to the sunny Churchillian uplands that Boris Johnson quotes too frequently? Or will the dawn prove false and give way to continuing gloom and foreboding? 


Locked down once more in a very quiet Oxford, now in Tier 4, we feel we’re living in a metaphor.  We’re presently surrounded by flooded water-meadows: to be fair, the meadows are only doing their job, turning into lakes without harming property while the several rivers that flow through and around the city cannot on their own carry away the liquid consequences of many weeks of wet weather.


By contrast, yesterday saw the historic Ridgeway, nearby at Uffington, bathed in sunshine.

In thick grey fog yesterday, and heavy cloud and drizzle today, the city’s dreaming spires appeared to be drowning. Yet, heading out yesterday in search of health-giving exercise (all entirely legal), we found ourselves enjoying a bright, bracingly cold walk along the ancient Ridgeway, only a few miles to the west.


Such moments are uplifting, and are perhaps what we need to focus on as our patience is tested for still more weeks and months. Oxford’s team of vaccine-creators under the amazing Sarah Gilbert make me proud to be both resident of the city and a graduate of its university. I think its ease of use will make it the single biggest game-changer in the fight against Covid. Yet the millions of doses required present a formidable challenge in both production and distribution.


The government that must implement the solution, and simultaneously try to keep business, education services and the NHS going in the meantime, let alone rescue the economy, is the same one that couldn’t organise testing, tracking or tracing efficiently, outsourcing the tasks to firms belonging to mates that couldn’t, as they say, find a tart in a brothel. 


My friends and former colleagues in education have been driven to screaming point by ministerial dither, delay and contradiction culminating (though not, if fear, ending) in instructions with regard to the reopening of schools (or not) next week – issued yesterday, New Year’s Eve, at 5.50pm.  Mark my words, there’s still time for them to make a hideous mess of GCSE and A level exams in the summer, though they swear they’ll go ahead as planned.


And that’s only the area of vital activity that I know something about. The grumpy retired teacher in me, who abhors the bungling and ineptitude we’ve witnessed in Westminster, is gloomy about how this year will pan out. 


The optimist who, mercifully, wins through as a rule wants to believe that our collective resilience and the genius and dedication of our medics and scientists will lead us to the sunny uplands we seek.


We’ll see. In the meantime, a happier and healthier New Year to all!


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