It was the worst of years. Let’s get that out of the way. Choked by coronavirus, divided by coronavirus, we have endured many months during which the most natural of human behaviours – hugging, touching, kissing, mingling in crowds, enjoying a hubbub – have been forbidden.
Nor will it finish quickly. Historians have a habit of extending periods when it suits them – ‘the long 20th Century’ – ‘the long war’ and so on. I fear we are about to experience the long 2020.
Thanks to the new strain of coronavirus and the slamming-shut of cities and borders, it’s going to be a long slog until those vaccines are widely enough distributed.
For the next few months we may still be huddled in bivouacs, as the storm pelts, until there’s a proper New Beginning.
Historians have a habit of extending periods when it suits them – ‘the long 20th Century’ – ‘the long war’ and so on. I fear we are about to experience the long 2020. Fireworks are seen above on New Year’s Eve of 2020
We have all reacted according to our temperaments. Even now, with the vaccines on the way, I have been thinking about how very annoying it would be to die of Covid in the final stage of the pandemic – the equivalent of being caught by a weary sniper’s bullet as the Great War finally came to an end in early November 1918.
And so I am, essentially, lurking during this festive season, a grumpy, passive tortoise under a stone, lugubriously munching a cabbage leaf.
For below those months of headlines, I’m sure what we will really remember are the individual and family experiences of the sickness. About 70,000 people in Britain have died with Covid-19. What does that statistic even mean?
How can we imagine it, such a small proportion of us, but such a huge number? More than two million cases have been recorded.
At different times and places, we feared hospitals would be overwhelmed. But during 2020, of course, it wasn’t just the immediate impact of the disease.
Across Britain, people are still exhausted, wheezing and struggling to concentrate despite having recovered from the disease. Meanwhile, others have died from cancer, stroke and ills which, in normal times, would have been dealt with.
From the ordering of personal protective equipment to the deployment of effective tests, the state machine struggled – at times embarrassingly.
Under a Tory Government, public debt rose to levels that would once have made a hardened Corbynite flinch.
Whether Brexit proves the opening scene of a great revival of national prosperity and happiness, or a narrow gate into a chill and miserable cul-de-sac, the experience has, for the time being, driven millions of people into furious tribes
Well-run businesses, started with a flush of optimism and sustained by hard work and determination – long days, sleepless nights, too – have been destroyed. It’s been a good time for locksmiths and the makers of metal shutters.
Young people, starting out on their lives’ work, full of naive good cheer and innocent ambition, have been poleaxed. Many relationships, compressed by lockdown, have come apart behind closed doors. Loneliness, like a cold mist, has spread around housing estates and villages.
I am sorry. Who needs all of this rehearsed? We know it. We’ve lived through it. Why dwell on it? Well, because no account of 2020 that didn’t say these things would be remotely honest.
Alongside the doomy bass thud of the pandemic there has been another kind of music, as the UK has left the European Union. Whatever side you’re on, we can see it has made this an angrier society.
Whether Brexit proves the opening scene of a great revival of national prosperity and happiness, or a narrow gate into a chill and miserable cul-de-sac, the experience has, for the time being, driven millions of people into furious tribes.
Scrolling through the misnamed ‘social media’, it sometimes seems as if we have been maddened by the experience.
Too many hardcore pro-Europeans, with their immediate political options closed off, foam with contempt for Brexit voters; while too many hardcore Brexiteers can’t accept their victory, flailing around with semi-paranoid fantasies about the next metropolitan betrayal.
I am old enough to remember a calmer, more gently humorous national temperament.
That great cartoonist, Pont of Punch, made a good living satirising the British inability to get worked up – that sceptical national phlegm we were (quietly) proud of.
Thanks to the new strain of coronavirus and the slamming-shut of cities and borders, it’s going to be a long slog until those vaccines are widely enough distributed
Even during the traumas of earlier decades, from wars to economic crises, the British were pleased with themselves for finding it hard to get over-excited – for being mild, tolerant, kind.
Remember those days? So, it might seem, there hasn’t been a great deal to look back on with pride or affection. Yet I’ve painted so far in deliberately dingy colours. I have brighter ones.
For 2020 was also the year when tens of thousands of doctors and nurses, working themselves to the bone in hot, crowded, dangerous conditions, saved huge numbers of lives and won, again, the gratitude of the whole country.
It was the year in which scientists, working across the UK, in Germany, the US and many other countries, performed near-miracles in producing vaccines which will make 2021 – when it finally arrives in March or April – feel a great deal better.
Week after week, on my TV programme, we interviewed every kind of -ologist we could think of. I could almost see the interest and respect for science growing. I worried the details of vaccine development or epidemiology would be too much for my Sunday morning audiences. I worried in vain.
Audiences discovered all these people who answered serious questions seriously, didn’t dodge, and who could tell them stuff they didn’t know.
For some of the time, at least, politicians also desisted from cheap party-political slagging-off. And for all of the time, behind the scenes, much-maligned civil servants were working frantically hard to keep the country going.
We found a new respect not just for NHS workers but for refuse collectors, shelf-stackers in supermarkets and delivery drivers who kept a locked-down country clean and fed. As in any great challenge, below the grim headlines, 2020 also showed humans at their best, most ingenious and most dogged.
In lockdown, many of us also found out new things about ourselves. We became competent bakers, meticulous gardeners, better carers to our older relatives. Some of us, it has to be admitted, drank too much. But others taught themselves languages, learned to play the piano or read novels that had gathered dust for decades on bookshelves.
I spent a lot of time drawing and painting. I’m desperate to show off the results. Art needs to be seen in the flesh. But like theatres, galleries have mostly been closed, so that’s for next year.
Meanwhile, we got to know our immediate neighbours better. We rediscovered the simple joys of a walk in the neighbourhood park. Urbanites fled to the country and found they liked it (whether the country likes them back is another matter).
Many of us experienced the speed, colour and excitement of spring more intensely than ever before. Those who went on holiday during the summer often experienced parts of Britain – this extraordinarily varied archipelago – that they had never seen before. For me, it was corners of Shropshire, Fife and Northumberland. Why had I never visited them before?
So, not all bad – not by a long chalk. But let’s be honest: the very best thing about 2020 is that it’s now over. With the help of those scientists and NHS staff, we will mostly get vaccinated by the return of spring. To say next year will be better is to set a very low bar, but I think many of us will really love 2021.
It’s hard to imagine just how exciting, eventually, the old normality is going to feel. Shouldering your way through a crowded pub to the bar; cramming into a stadium or concert hall to hear music; giving that friend you haven’t seen for too long a big hug; watching the countryside flash by from a busy train as you juggle sandwiches, newspapers and coffee; inviting round a hairy, smelly jumble of old mates for pizza and red wine.
Yes, at some point next year custom will dull the excitement. But in spring and summer we are going to experience more intensely than ever before the simple, ordinary pleasures of modern life. In 2021, there is going to be the Great Uncorking – fizz and a certain amount of pop.
This has happened before. Writing after the long gloom of the Depression, the economist John Maynard Keynes pointed out how much depends on ‘spontaneous optimism rather than mathematical expectations, whether moral or hedonistic or economic… our decisions to do something positive, the full consequences of which will be drawn out over many days to come, can only be taken as the result of animal spirits’. In his sense, 2021 can be the year of animal spirits.
This isn’t a plea simply for a bubbling period of pleasure and self-indulgence. Animal spirits are also about optimism and energy. And there is work to be done. I am not making, I hope, a party political point when I say that the British state has struggled and that our public life – private sector and public sector – generally seems to have become less efficient. This used to be a country where things, basically, worked. Is it still?
Next, there is a great work of rebuilding and restoration to be begun – everything from potholed roads to public services. Beyond that, there is debt to be paid back – honestly and fairly.
And hanging over everything, with the crucial climate change conference in Glasgow in November, we have to turn our energies to the great cause of becoming a cleaner, greener economy.
This is a good moment for it. We have learned during the pandemic to trust science. And science tells us, overwhelmingly, of the reality and the danger of global warming. In 2020, we were distracted by coronavirus and by Brexit.
But now we have got to turn ourselves afresh to the story that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will care about most.
That won’t be easy. Nobody can say today where relations with our most important friends and trading partners, the EU, will be in another year’s time.
In the year ahead, our national self-recognition will be tested in a different way.
It seems likely that the SNP will win well in the Scottish elections and push hard for another independence referendum. No one can predict the future but there must be a chance that the 300-year-old-plus Union between England and Scotland will come apart.
The constitution, too, may be a work of rebuilding.
Although journalists talk endlessly about public life, the truth is that all of us get most of our nourishment and perspective from private life.
This year, I lost my much-loved father. It was a huge blow, from which I am still reeling. There are far too many relatives and friends I simply haven’t been able to see. But this horrible year has taught me, again, the importance of family and deep friendship. We go on together.
It’s because of good, loving, decent people around me that I look forward with confidence, and excitement, to whatever’s next.
So here is an easy toast – to a better year.