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I Heard the News Today

The presentation was numbing, but the results were clear: the vaccine worked.  Inside the auditorium people tearfully and joyfully embraced…church bells were ringing across the country, factories were observing moments of silence, synagogues and churches were holding prayer meetings, and parents and teachers were weeping.  ‘It was as if a war had ended’, one observer recalled.

We all hope that such a scene will be repeated around the world sooner rather than later, with an effective vaccine against COVID-19.  However, the previous paragraph forms part of a report about the development of a polio vaccine in America in the 1950s, reminding us that, despite the unprecedented use of the word unprecedented in almost everything we hear, see and read at the moment, there actually is not all that much that is new under the sun.

Though I taught his daughter many years ago, I never met the author Terry Pratchett and I have never read any of his books, but that does not stop me collecting his wisdom, for example when Lord Vetinari in the Discworld series said, ‘Be careful.  People like to be told what they already know.  Remember that.  They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things.  New things… well, new things aren’t what they expect.  They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man.  That is what dogs do.  They don’t want to know that a man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that.  In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds… Not news but olds, telling people that what they think they already know is true.’

I can only tolerate the main headlines of news bulletins just now, to get the gist of what is going on.  My childhood is increasingly further away than it used to be, but my memory of news back then was that it reported on what had happened.  Reporters and broadcasters described what was going on and then moved on to the next story, leaving the audience to draw its own conclusions.  I could, of course, be completely wrong about this, but bear with me, please, for the sake of what follows.

Perhaps it was the advent of rolling news, or the internet or mobile phones, but somewhere along the way we seem to have moved to a situation where what has happened is of relatively minor significance when compared either to what should have happened or what might happen next.  This currently seems to be particularly prevalent, because there is only one story so there is a lot of time to devote to it.

I have never described myself as a historian.  My degree certificate says I studied ancient and modern history, and I have spent thirty years trying to explain to anyone who would listen why I think it is an important subject to study, but I have never claimed any level of knowledge or understanding that would allow me to be labelled as any sort of expert.  Having said that, the years I have spent teaching history have given me, I think, a reasonably clear understanding about the benefits of hindsight and the best way to apply it.

There is a well-known story about the Chinese leader Zhou Enlai being asked in the early 1970s what he thought about the significance of the French Revolution and replying, ‘It’s too early to tell.’  Unfortunately, it turns out this was almost certainly a misunderstanding of translation, with Zhou Enlai thinking he was talking about the Paris riots of 1968 rather than the events of 1789 and thereafter. 

However, it makes the point that proper analysis of a situation requires appropriate time and distance.  Asking now what the government, or the WHO, or anyone else, could or should have done differently just a few short weeks ago seems to serve no useful purpose as far I can see.  In time – and goodness me, can you imagine how this is going to play out for the next however many years, and how much it will cost? – there will no doubt be a host of public enquiries to try to work out how to do things better next time, which, if most of the previous public enquiries are anything to go by, will achieve very little and change even less.

That is not to say that we should not be willing to learn from our mistakes – far from it.  But there is a difference between reflecting at an appropriate rational moment and looking at yourself in the mirror each evening to try to unravel every thread that could have turned out differently that day.

Worse even than the obsession with what should have been done is the speculation about what might happen next.  Since we all have a bit more time on our hands at the moment, I suggest you sit down with your family and spend a few minutes trying to guess the future.  You can make your own questions up, of course, but here are some suggestions from me to get the debate started:

  • In which month of which year will your family be vaccinated against COVID-19?
  • Who will be the next prime minister?
  • Which team will win the next Champions League final?
  • What will be the base rate of interest be at Christmas?  
  • Where will your next family holiday be spent?

Fun for all the family, I am sure you will agree.  I suggest you draw up ten questions of your own, and try to have a cut-off date, maybe something like Christmas 2021.  Then, rather like a time capsule, get everyone to write their answers down and seal them in an envelope.  I don’t think you need to go as far as burying it in the garden, but you can if you like – it’s your lockdown as much as mine, after all.  You do, however, need to remember where you put the envelope, otherwise it will be even more of an anti-climax than it probably will be already.

At your agreed time, open the envelope and see how everyone has got on.  My guess, for what it is worth, is that the winner will be the person who has managed just a single correct answer.  Why am I so pessimistic about your chances?  Well, simply because we are by and large absolutely hopeless when it comes to predicting the future.

Therefore, once we have established that none of us can say with any certainty what will happen tomorrow, let alone any further out into the future, I struggle to see the point of asking too many questions about what the world will look like, whether by the summer, the autumn, Christmas or in 2025.  The simple answer is that nobody knows and almost every prediction will be wrong.

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