I wonder if you will read this?
Not because I wrote it; that would be reason alone to quietly swipe left and move onto the rest of your overflowing inbox. Rather, I wonder whether this enforced halt to our normal lives is allowing you time to indulge in some ‘old school’ habits. Like reading. Surely our corona confinement is a pry bar, levering open usually frenetic lives, making room for some unclaimed hours. If so, how are you filling them?
Many of us started the lockdown with lofty aspirations. No doubt, most of you will already have repainted the kitchen, perfected double-baked soufflés, become fluent in Mandarin, gained a third-dan Black Belt in Karate, and achieved Grandmaster status in Chess. By now you are probably getting around to the last few things that you always meant to do, like creating a low-cost gene-splicer from your kitchen appliances or improving Shakespeare’s Complete Works by tidying up a few plot lines for him. Please note that binge-watching the entire back catalogue of Netflix does not count as a lofty aspiration (although surviving ‘The Tiger King’ comes close).
But are you reading more? Proper reading. Not headline swiping or the Facebook shuffle. Not rereading the same page of that book on your bedside table before falling asleep, three weeks in a row. Deep reading. Taking the time to wallow in a novel or become immersed in verse. Settling down with an autobiography, tracing another person’s life whilst your own is on pause.
If you are “not a reader” (which is contradiction in terms, given that you halfway through these musings already), here’s an easy entrée. Start by reading words that were written to be spoken. My favourite university course was “Great Speeches of the 20th Century”. We were hypnotised by the rhythm of Martin Luther King, persuaded by the passion of Emmeline Pankhurst. Taught to tease apart the syntax of Khrushchev and Kennedy. Rolled Mandela’s rhetoric around in our own mouths, savouring the flavour. A good speech is a novel in its own right.
Many of today’s leaders take their speechwriting cues from the greats of last century. Boris Johnson is currently drawing upon the wartime oratory of his idol, Winston Churchill to good effect (although sadly Donald Trump seems to channelling Homer Simpson). In times of crisis, the pen really is mightier than the sword. Words don’t just record history, they can alter its course.
There is one current world leader though, whose oratory style is all her own. Most people in Britain will have watched the speech that Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, gave to the nation on Sunday night. If you want something simple yet compelling to kickstart your lockdown reading, go back and have a look at the text of what she said.
I’m not sure that I’m a Royalist, I just love the Queen. Partly because she has been a permanent presence throughout my life. Like the Lodestar, fixed and steady. Appearing at the right moments as a reliable guide, no matter how dark the night. Like last Sunday. A few deceptively simple phrases, no more words than those you have just read here. Yet each adjective chosen with care, every tense deliberate, every noun nuanced.
The internet and media are awash with millions of words offering comment on the current crisis. Platitudes, predictions and pathos abound. Volumes of self-pitying complaint, portents of doom and clumsy if well-intentioned advice. No wonder people don’t read as much anymore, when you have to wade through pages of dense verbiage just to uncover a single line of sensible thought.
Which is why I say, read Her Majesty’s script. In particular,
"I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge.
And those who come after us will say that the Britons of this generation were as strong as any.
That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country."
Sometimes you only need to read a little to get a lot.