It was one of those moments, like the moon landing, the death of Diana and when Coleen Rooney accused Rebekah Vardy of selling stories about her. We’ll be able to tell our grandchildren exactly where we were when – a year ago on Tuesday and with a viral infection sweeping the world – the Prime Minister told us to stay at home.
As the pandemic reached into every area of our lives, it also held a mirror up to some of the most fragile parts of society, and gave us all a taste of how it feels to be vulnerable. We realised how it felt to face insecurity and uncertainty – at work and at home – and to be at the mercy of our health. It shone a blinding light on the cracks in our health infrastructure and the support we offer to those who can’t work through no fault of their own. It exposed deep divisions, across class and wealth and postcode. It brought us face-to-face with the already building epidemic of poor mental wellbeing – and provided a moment of reckoning on how we treat each other.
Some of those things remain up in the air – how will it shape the future of work and relationships, where we do and don’t spend our money and how we do and don’t travel? But some things appear to have snapped back. The early sense of community and resolve has dissipated and given way to restlessness.
The most telling development of the last twelve months may be how comfortable I have become opening the door to the postman in my pyjamas. Sorry about that, mate, but I’m trying to navigate a viral pandemic and I have no interest in getting dressed.
This weekend, Tom Cheesewright – Futurologist, friend and one of the smartest people I know – will join us to figure out what we have and haven’t learnt from the last twelve months. The developments in technology, our personal and professional habits, and a reckoning on how we treat each other.
That particular moment of reckoning was set in motion a few weeks earlier. On the afternoon of February 15th, TV presenter Caroline Flack was found dead at home, having taken her own life. It rocked us. The outpouring of shock and grief caught a lot of us by surprise.
At the time, I spoke of my own sense of shame. It held a mirror up to some of our most destructive behaviour – and I wasn’t going to allow myself to be exempt. I felt a sense of shame at being part of a media that chewed people up and spat them out. Shame at the times I too have feasted on the personal lives of celebrities in the name of entertainment. Shame at the times I have asked invasive questions to my guests – or not treated the fragile bits of their story with the sensitivity they deserved. It felt like the dawn of an era of kindness and compassion… and then it wasn’t. The carnival rumbled on – and the months that followed deepened our divisions. The Twitter pile ons returned and in the most startling sign of how little progress we made, a famous woman’s admission of having suicidal thoughts was dismissed, dismantled and disbelieved on national television.
It is hard to imagine how it has felt, for those who knew her, to watch as the world slipped straight back into the same snarky, gossipy intolerance that lead to Caroline’s tragic death.
This week, a documentary reflecting on Caroline’s troubled life and death has given us another chance to pause and think. This weekend we’ll speak to the documentary’s producer, Dov Freedman, who met with Caroline just a few weeks before her death.
Also this week, a familiar and exhausting tussle has reared its head after BBC Breakfast host Charlie Stayt gently teased government minister Robert Jenrick about the size of the Union Flag positioned in the background of his interview. It was fairly tame and innocent, but the predictable reactionary response kicked up immediately – with earnest assessments of how disrespectful it was to the country and, somehow, Her Majesty the Queen.
Others pointed out the increasingly jiggonistic use of the Union Flag as the backdrop to every government briefing or ministerial interview. And it’s hard to ignore.
I have written before about the hijacking of patriotism – and the need to reclaim it in the name of something altogether more tangible and less hostile. And I will be honest, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do this story. Would it be a lazy contribution to an age-old culture war – an easy way of getting people riled up and outraged? Does a story that has, evidently, been blown out of proportion and used as a vehicle for whipping people into hollow indignation deserve to be taken seriously?
But, then, maybe it is more complex. Maybe it drives to the heart of something much more interesting and holds a mirror up too. The sudden flurry of backdrop Union Flags could tell us something about the government’s insecurity. Not just a post-Brexit uncertainty as to where our place in the world lies – but an insecurity about the future of a fracturing of the union. This is a government battling to keep Scotland – and increasingly Wales – on the team. While critics are pointing to it as a drive to an unhealthy British nationalism – could it be as much an effort to thwart Scottish nationalism and rally the union around a unifying symbol?
Either way, this is a country that is figuring itself out. We’re grappling with our past and our present. Rather than an argument about a flag, we’ll try for a more interesting conversation about what the government’s not-so-subtle promotion of that flag tells us about how well that is going. Journalist Benedict Spence will join us to navigate that one.
Perhaps the best sense of who we are, what we stand for and what our history tells us comes from the census. The once-a-decade mass gathering of information.
Who are we? Where are we? How do we live our lives? What do we need and not need? What trends and changes can we track? There are obvious practical reasons for doing a census – it tells us how much money we need to invest in schools and hospitals and roads and policing. But it can also give us insights into our national identity – what we believe and don’t believe, what path we’re on and where we have come from.
It is a treasure chest of data and stats and facts and insights. This Sunday morning, on census day 2021, we’ll take a look through some of the most fascinating aspects of the census gone-by.
See you in the morning.
Weekend Early Breakfast – with Darryl Morris. Saturday and Sunday from 5am on talkRADIO.March 19, 2021 | No Comments