In this bleak, mad winter, lightness is coming

Public buildings and a Christmas tree are seen fully lit in the almost deserted Praca do Comercia, in Lisbon

An almost deserted Praca do Comercio. The prospect of travel is one of the causes for hope this winter - Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

Things look particularly bleak this Christmas, but JAMES BALL finds some cause for optimism. 

The midwinter is notoriously a bleak season – not for nothing is there a whole song along that theme. Similarly, it’s not coincidental that most cultures and religions mark some celebration of light or of joy in the middle of this period.

When you live as far up the northern hemisphere as we do – the UK is on the same latitude as Siberia – this time of the year is cold, grey and dark.

This year the headlines and the politics couldn’t suit the aesthetics better: Coronavirus cases are rising across much of the country, many of us are facing the prospect of Christmas without our families, and there’s every sign that the restrictions and the accompanying job and health worries will continue for at least a few months more.

Into that steaming mix of miseries comes one final calamity: after whatever we can each salvage of Christmas, Brexit will finally become a reality. At the time of writing, this could still be with a deal, or a no-deal exit that the government pretends it wishes to stick with, or some 'temporary' no-deal as everyone tries to work out ratification.


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Whichever it is, it will represent more uncertainty, more chaos, more headaches and more economic harm.

At the end of a year which has been for many of us gruelling, stressful and miserable, it’s hard not to feel things are pretty grim, perhaps even to the point of despair. But perhaps there’s something to the old adage that it’s always darkest before dawn. Because right now there are reasons to be cheerful, and reasons to hope.

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For one, if you’re reading these words, you’ve made it so far through this year. We’ve had our endurance tested by Covid and our patience tested by the response to it, and we’re still here. We have weathered nine months of this pandemic with no idea of when it might end or a solution might be found.

That’s not what we have to do next year: we know there is a vaccine and it works. Better still, there are three vaccines and they all work, and we have tens of millions of doses already on the way, and hundreds of millions on order.

Administering those doses will likely be uneven – why expect the government to suddenly become competent now? – and might take longer than some of the more optimistic forecasts. But we know there is a way out now, not in a decade’s time, not 3-5 years away, but within a matter of months.

Because of how we’re prioritising the vaccine, the first thing to drop should be deaths and major hospitalisations. For vulnerable people, for whom coronavirus has been terrifying rather than frustrating, this release of burden alone will be a huge blessing. But from that will come gradual reopening, more chances to see loved ones, more people able to socialise – and eventually a return to the nightlife, arts, and culture we have so missed. Perhaps even travel.

As one (sadly lost to memory) person observed on Twitter last week, few of us had probably considered until now why the Roaring Twenties followed so closely after the Spanish Flu pandemic.

Now it makes perfect sense. Denied the joys of the world for a time, through quarantine and through sickness, people embraced their return almost to the point of ridiculousness.

Something of the same seems likely to happen again, hopefully with a form of poetic justice: the sectors hardest hit by the virus should be the ones that are most embraced when they can return.

It may not be the same shows, the same festivals, or the same clubs that spring forth in the second half of 2021 and through 2022 – but they will find a huge and ready audience.

Some people will have been lucky and will have savings to burn through for a summer of fun. Others will need to save for it, or find it where they can – but as soon as they’re able, expect long queues for every kind of cultural attrac tions, be it an art exhibition or a 40-hour rave. Joy may not come quite as soon as the morning, but we can imagine it in our futures again.

It is hard to make a similar celebration of the incipient arrival of Brexit, but there are at least a few silver linings here too. If we are going to needlessly cause major short-term disruption to our economy, it is perversely better it comes when we are already disrupted – staying at home, travelling less, hunkering down – anyway.

The longer term economic slowdown is real, but the chaos while everyone works out new border procedures, how to manage queues, how to retool supply lines, will at least come in an existing period of chaos and misery.

More importantly, Brexit will be done. The four-year gap between the vote to leave the EU and actually leaving it was like history’s worst case of stubbing your toe: there is a gap between the injury and the pain, almost worse than when it arrives because of the anticipation. We’ve had four years of that.

There are ironic boosts here too. The “festival of Brexit”, born under Theresa May and continued by Boris Johnson, is set to represent the most significant boost of cash to arts and culture from a Conservative government in quite some time.

It will land in time to fund events for 2022, as we emerge from our Covid cocoons, subsidising a sector in desperate need of it and with a pent-up desire to show off. If we can push through a few months more, things might actually be good, might actually be fun, and might actually be a bit bright.

We don’t light candles in the bleak midwinter because they live up to the sun of summer – they just remind us it will come back again. Even in this bleak, mad winter, lightness is coming.

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