A is for Ammonium nitrate
On 4 August, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut’s port, destroying swathes of Lebanon’s capital and killing more than 200 people. Stockpiles of the chemical, primarily used as an explosive, had sat in a port warehouse for years, despite officials warning of the growing potential for a catastrophe. The explosion was seen by many in Lebanon as largely the fault of a corrupt and dysfunctional Lebanese state.
The blast led to support from around the world but also political interventions, most notably from the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who warned the government to push ahead with reforms to avoid future tragedies. Ido Vock
B is for Barnard Castle
In May the scandal that launched a thousand memes hit the obedient British public’s front pages. It emerged that Boris Johnson’s then chief adviser and poundshop Svengali Dominic Cummings had driven with his wife and son to stay with his parents in Durham during the March lockdown, when everyone had been told repeatedly to stay put.
Before returning to London, Cummings also took a 30-mile drive to tourist site Barnard Castle. As the details of his trip unfolded, he was forced into an excruciating press conference in the Downing Street garden to explain himself. He insisted he only travelled to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight on the roads. As it became clear it was one rule for them and another for the rest of us, the “Dominic Cummings effect” promptly saw government and Conservative Party poll ratings plummet. BrewDog released a commemorative small batch Barnard Castle Eye Test IPA (“short-sighted beer for tall stories”) and the local Specsavers offered free eye tests to Barnard Castle daytrippers. Having hosted an influx of selfie-hungry visitors, the town has yet to grow weary of the attention. One town councillor told the Guardian that Cummings had even been invited to switch on its Christmas lights this year – “it didn’t work”. Who could’ve superforecasted that? Anoosh Chakelian
C is for Caroline Flack
On 15 February this year, the TV presenter Caroline Flack died by suicide at age 40. Two months earlier, she had learned that she would be prosecuted for allegedly assaulting her boyfriend, Lewis Burton, after which she stood down from presenting Love Island.
After her death, her family revealed an unpublished Instagram post stating that she had been suffering an emotional breakdown “for a very long time”.
Even before her death, Flack, best known for presenting The X Factor and Love Island, had come to represent the worst of celebrity culture. She was scrutinised on social media and in the British press for her relationships and appearance. When she died, tabloid newspapers were quick to shirk responsibility. There were gushing headlines across the board, and it was reported that the Sun deleted several articles it had previously published about her online.
Flack’s death felt especially tragic after two previous suicides of Love Island contestants, Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis, who died in 2018 and 2019 respectively, prompting ITV producers to increase the mental health support available to contestants of the show, which, by 2018, had become a sort of unofficial influencer factory. The scale of the response to Flack’s death, with tributes flooding in and social media posts calling for us all to “#BeKind”, made it feel like a crisis point in celebrity culture.
Exactly ten months after Flack’s death, on 15 December, Jesy Nelson announced on Instagram that after nine years she was leaving Little Mix, one of the most successful girlbands of all time. “The truth is recently being in the band has really taken a toll on my mental health,” she wrote. In a 2019 BBC documentary, Odd One Out, Nelson told the story of the online abuse she has experienced since Little Mix won The X Factor in 2011. She attempted suicide in 2013.
Though the documentary shows Nelson undertaking a journey of self-acceptance, attending bullying support groups and receiving counselling for body dysmorphia, there is a sense of unease throughout it: this was clearly a story still unfolding. Nelson’s decision to step down from Little Mix has been widely respected, perhaps unsurprisingly in this era of “mental health awareness”. But Caroline Flack showed us that awareness alone is not enough. Nearly a year on, in this hyper-inflated online celebrity culture, there is still much work to do. Emily Bootle
D is for Debenhams
In 2014 all four sides of the flagship Debenhams store on Oxford Street were covered with a shimmering “kinetic skin” of 187,000 aluminium tiles that fluttered in the wind, sending light and movement across its surfaces. It was a much-needed revamp of a building that had come to personify Britain’s ailing retail empire, and which was perhaps the only headquarters of a major company to be outshone by its own car park. (The multi-storey on Welbeck Street, with its facade of brutalist diamonds, was mourned by architects when it was demolished in 2019).
But inside, it was the same old Debenhams. The same gale of mixed scents from the cosmetics department, the same bewildering potpourri of scarves and blouses and shirts on rack after rack after rack.
The company had spent more than a century slowly buying up British department stores, from John Yeo of Plymouth to Lewis of Glasgow, rebranding them into standard units in Britain’s growing army of clone towns, where business rates and high rents meant only chains could prosper. In 2005 the New Economics Foundation identified Exeter as Britain’s most generic high street – presided over by a seven-storey branch of Debenhams, its only architectural accolade a mention in the Times’ 1987 round-up of the UK’s ugliest buildings.
The sameness of the British high street led the UK into e-commerce faster than any other country in Europe. By 2008 more than half of UK citizens had shopped online. The ensuing decade of austerity corroded the public realm still further and left shoppers with less disposable income; footfall declined by more than 20 per cent between 2007 and 2017. Online retailers such as Asos, which has almost 35 times as many Instagram followers as Debenhams, easily outpaced it, and when the pandemic arrived they were far better-placed to sell to a nation that now browsed almost entirely online.
Debenhams had already fallen into administration in April 2019 and a buyer was being lined up. But when Arcadia – which operated many of the brand concessions within Debenhams stores – went into administration itself this year, the lifeline was withdrawn and 12,000 people now face losing their jobs.
Oddly, the company that may have done most to damage physical retail in the UK is now investing in bricks and mortar. In August, the Sunday Times reported that Amazon is planning to open 30 of its no-checkout “Go” stores across the UK. The high street may not be finished – but it is heading for radical change. Will Dunn
E is for Eat Out to Help Out
During the Second World War, the civilian population was asked to donate any available metal for the war effort. Some of it was probably useful – wrought iron could be used for armaments, aluminium pans for aeroplanes – but the majority was never needed or used. Across the country, Victorian cast-iron gates and railings were cut down and left to rust. But it was also a popular policy; it made people feel as though they were doing something.
A similar story could be told about Eat Out to Help Out, the government’s offer of half-price food (up to a discount of £10 per head) at restaurants, cafés and pubs on certain days in August. Treating the country to £849m’s worth of cheeky Nando’s made people feel they were helping to get local businesses back on their feet. Sadly, they weren’t: the British Chambers of Commerce found that revenue for most hospitality and catering businesses fell between June and September.
But the biggest benefactor of the scheme was, of course, the Covid-19. One study by Warwick University estimated that up to 17 per cent of new infection clusters could have been caused by Eat Out to Help Out. In case the conditions for a second wave weren’t fully established, the government then exhorted tens of millions of frazzled kitchen-deskers to “get back to work”.
It’s a shame Sunak didn’t choose a WW2-themed name for his policy – “Pig for Victory”, perhaps, or “Cake, Do and Mend” – but the choice of “Eat Out to Help Out” did at least suggest that someone in the Treasury is a cunning linguist. Will Dunn
F is for Four Seasons Total Landscaping
It was a metaphor. It was a farce. It was a real thing that actually happened.
A few days after the polls closed in the US presidential election, networks and wire services called the election for Joe Biden. That same day, Donald Trump announced that there would be a press conference at the Four Seasons Philadelphia, only to follow it up with a clarification. The press conference would not be held at the Four Seasons, the famed hotel, but at Four Seasons Total Landscaping, located, as NPR put it, “near a sex shop, a crematorium, and a jail”. There, the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, would baselessly claim that Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania was due to voter fraud.
Trump did not, in fact, win Pennsylvania, but he did help Four Seasons Total Landscaping achieve a kind of victory. The company pivoted from its normal services of mulching and leaf removal to selling merchandise reading “Lawn and Order” and “Make America Rake Again”. Within four days of the press conference, they sold out. Emily Tamkin
G is for George Floyd
On 25 May, George Floyd, 46, a bouncer, a former college football champion, a hip-hop artist, a father, a friend, was killed by police in Minneapolis when an officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes as he called for his dead mother and struggled for breath. The footage of his killing, filmed by a bystander on her mobile phone, ignited nationwide anger and grief. Floyd’s final words – “I can’t breathe” – became a rallying cry for Black Lives Matter demonstrators, who gathered across US cities, and across the world, to protest against police brutality, systemic racism and a suffocating Covid-19 pandemic that has disproportionately killed people of colour.
The protests prompted police reforms in many American cities and made racial equality a central theme for the 2020 elections. In a video posted on Instagram in June, Floyd’s six-year-old daughter Gianna is shown sitting on the shoulders of the former NBA player Stephen Jackson, a friend of Floyd’s. “Daddy changed the world,” she says. Sophie McBain
H is for Harry and Megxit
It was even a bad year for the royals. In the early weeks of 2020, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced they would be leaving the firm. In the weeks that followed, we learned just how severe their severance package would be: titles were stripped and the £2.4m of taxpayer money they spent to renovate their home repaid. There was to be no such thing as part-time royalty.
This came as no surprise to the royal family’s online fanbase, which had coined “Megxit” back in 2018. In the years since Markle joined the family, she has polarised public opinion. For a new generation of royal watchers, Markle marked a new dawn. Hundreds of women of colour joined the fanbase, hopeful of an inclusive future. But by many others, Markle was villainised.
Conspiracy theories circulated, the most sinister of which claimed Markle faked her own pregnancy. She was also an obsession of the British tabloids. She was too secretive about her pregnancy; she showed off her baby bump too much; she wore too much black. Then, in the autumn of 2019, the royal couple made the decision to sue the Mail on Sunday for publishing a private letter Meghan sent to her father.
On 31 March, as coronavirus rates rose across Europe, Harry and Meghan officially left the royal family; the natural conclusion to a tumultuous few years. The couple moved out of Frogmore Cottage with their young son Archie, leaving their royal duties and titles behind them. The monarchy had lost its most popular couple.
And things only got worse. On 15 November, the anticipated fourth season of Peter Morgan’s The Crown aired on Netflix. The show, which amassed 29 million views in its first week, was juicy. In a series that focused on Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s marriage and the Queen’s difficult relationship with Margaret Thatcher, as well as nodding to Prince Andrew’s Jeffrey Epstein links, the royals did not come off well. Conservative commentators were outraged, while the government demanded Netflix place a disclaimer at the start of every episode.
And yet, since the season aired, the royal family’s popularity ratings have risen, with a third of viewers reporting that the show has only improved their opinion of the royals. For many, it seems, the soap opera has just begun. Ellie Peake
I is for Imagine
The most jarring thing about 25 extremely rich and famous people singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” in a tag-team selfie-camera compilation video of self-congratulatory smugness and faux sentimentality during a global pandemic is that they didn’t even bother to check they were singing in the same key. Ha ha, only joking. It’s the self-congratulation, smugness and sentimentality, which are unprecedented in a competitive field.
To be fair, it was a different world when the video came out on 19 March. Coronavirus had been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation just eight days earlier. Though in many ways things are now much worse, in March it was all panic, doom and panic-and-doom-yet-to-come; these days the tragedy of Covid-19 has settled into a grim monotony.
In that climate of Instagram posts about being “in this together”, with the novelty of video-calling yet to wear off, that imaginative bunch could almost have got away with it. But alas, the delivery was simply too awful to excuse. As they simper and riff, and Gal Gadot smiles a reassuringly privileged smile, you’d be lucky not to feel a strong urge to be sick through your nose. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, Jimmy Fallon appears in a puffer jacket and sunglasses mumbling half-tunefully like a benevolent management consultant.
In common with the pandemic itself, the actions of the Humble Celebrities Community have drastically worsened throughout 2020. In October, Kim Kardashian threw a 40th birthday party on a private island for, oh, around 30 to 40 of her closest personal friends, which she publicised with the caveat that everyone had undergone “multiple health screens” and quarantined. She wanted to “pretend things were normal just for a brief moment in time” (relatable!). Rita Ora similarly fell from grace a month later when she threw an illegal 30th birthday party at a restaurant in London, which not only flouted social distancing regulations but occurred on a date she was supposed to be self-isolating on return from Egypt.
In other news, Jess Glynne was denied entry to London restaurant Sexy Fish on 7 July because she was wearing a hoodie. Celebrities! They’re just like us! Emily Bootle
J is for Joe Wicks
Just as the first lockdown began, so did the global exercise boom. With extra free time and ultimately little to do with it, apps such as Couch to 5K and movement tracker Strava saw massive rises in downloads and weekly users.
But for parents, stuck inside with young children who not only needed parenting but teaching during the working day, these exercise options weren’t realistic for them or their kids. Enter their pandemic saviour: Joe Wicks. Known by his moniker “The Body Coach”, Wicks skyrocketed from D-list fitness expert to household name with his daily, real-time YouTube streams “PE with Joe” – a 30-minute exercise class for families to do together. He was awarded an MBE for the series, which regularly surpassed a million viewers per episode. Alongside other social media fitness instructors (see: Yoga With Adriene, countless Instagram Live classes), he became a hero of the pandemic: an encouraging, warm presence people could rely on to buoy their mood. Sarah Manavis
K is for Karen
2020 saw the cancellation of “cancel culture”: backlash against the backlash against those publicly airing their perceived-to-be egregious views. It was triggered by Karengate, a Twitter war over the use of the name “Karen”, among others, to mock entitled white women who wield their power over women of colour. Karens are characterised as being a certain type of white woman: bobbed hair, middle class and often asking to speak to the manager. And although Karen has been used as a derisive meme for the better part of the past decade, its debated origin came to a head when gender critical feminist Julie Bindel tweeted in April that it was a “slur”.
This moment was a tipping point into a deafening cycle of similar debates, the meta question always being: “Should there be repercussions for those in power who hold ‘wrong’ views?” Rotating in and out were conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement, having cleaners in a pandemic, and the infamous anti-cancel culture Harper’s letter. Comparatively, the Karen debate feels foolish. Should middle-class white women really care about being called Susan or Melissa? Whatever side of the debate you fall on, the Karen meme will persist as a symbol of who holds power. Sarah Manavis
L is for Loo roll
Most people don’t use toilet paper. For reasons of cost, culture or preference, roughly three-quarters of the world’s population use water instead. Which makes sense: most people, if they had faeces on their hands, would wash them rather than just rubbing them with dry paper. But toilet paper looms large in the Anglo-American psyche, cemented there by centuries of hygienic class discrimination and the Puritan sacrament of ablution.
In early March, as coronavirus took hold in the UK, shopping habits suggested many people worried more about the shame and disgust of being left without loo roll than what they would have to eat. Shelves were emptied, not because there was any shortage – 90 per cent of the loo roll used in the UK is made here, and supply chains were not disrupted – but because there was a change in the level and nature of demand.
Millions of people did actually need more loo roll, because working from home means wiping from home. But media coverage of empty shelves drove up perceived demand, leading to stockpiling and, in a few cases, violence. This was what was truly revealing, and frightening, about the West’s brief loo roll panic: that a fleeting and illusory shortage of something so flimsy was all it took for society to return to the predatory phase. Will Dunn
M is for Marcus Rashford
The one-man opposition party, Manchester United forward and Britain’s most accomplished multitasker Marcus Rashford has had a spectacular year. On 29 October, the day after his petition for the government to extend free school meals over the holidays reached a million signatures, the then 22-year-old scored a hat trick against RB Leipzig in the Champions League within 16 minutes. Ten days later, the government U-turned (See also: U for U-turns) for the second time in five months at his behest, accepting his (and many charities’ and politicians’) demands to provide food for deprived children over the upcoming school breaks.
After the first U-turn, which resulted in £15-a-week food vouchers for 1.3 million poor pupils in England over the summer, Rashford was awarded an MBE. Now the footballer – who has written about his own experience going hungry as a child – is launching a book club to boost literacy and has his sights on extending the £20-a-week Universal Credit increase introduced when the pandemic began. It is a reform the government should make permanent, according to the Conservative peer Michael Forsyth, “otherwise they are going to have several other famous footballers running campaigns”. Anoosh Chakelian
N is for No Deal
As the Brexit talks count down in earnest this time, with the end of the transition period looming on 31 December, the likely outcome for a UK-EU trade deal remains no deal. Or, as Boris Johnson prefers to present it, an “Australia-style deal”. That’s a trading relationship on World Trade Organisation terms with tariffs, quota restrictions and customs checks. A relationship so bad that Australia is actually trying to strike a free trade agreement with the EU to change it, with the former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull warning the UK to be “careful what you wish for”. A bit late for that, but the talks are still going… Anoosh Chakelian
O is for The Office
The workplace has always been a strange concept, and as we approach the end of our first year living through a pandemic, it seems stranger still. This dull, off-white, open-plan space where a group of otherwise unrelated individuals gather, as Tim observes in the Christmas special of The Office (UK), to “walk around on the same bit of carpet for eight hours a day”. Social convention dictates that although we may well spend more time with our colleagues than our own families, all human interactions underneath the Styrofoam ceiling of the office must be conducted with the clinical distance of “professionalism”.
Both editions of the sitcom The Office prove how easy it is to collapse that distance by putting an un-self-aware, uninhibited person desperate for human connection in charge: be it David Brent or Michael Scott. But the US series in particular constantly returns to the simple joy of seeing grown adults act like complete children, finding its humour in the inherent absurdity of the workplace. The Office (US), which originally aired from 2005-13, was ranked as American Netflix’s most popular acquired series in March. It certainly rewards repeat viewing; the full series comprises more than 200 tightly scripted, 20-minute episodes. To watch one in 2020 is to be reminded of the utter surreal ubiquity of office culture before the pandemic – just don’t let its juvenile delights trick you into feeling nostalgic for your own office. Anna Leszkiewicz
P is for Palantir
Like many of the world’s richest people, Peter Thiel’s net worth has soared this year as the wider economy sinks into one of the deepest recessions in living memory. One of the key sources of the US billionaire’s rising wealth is Palantir, a controversial data analysis firm co-founded by Thiel that listed on the New York Stock Exchange in September. Its share price has more than doubled since.
Having previously supplied data analysis tools to American military, immigration and surveillance agencies, the company has turned its sights to the National Health Service. In March Palantir agreed to help build a data tool to help the NHS predict demand during the pandemic, in return for £1. The deal, which was awarded without a competitive tender, was renewed a few months later to the tune of £1m. While Palantir is likely to win further work with the health service, it is by no means the only firm to have benefited from the government’s habit of outsourcing Covid-19 work to the private sector. Since the start of the pandemic, officials have awarded £10bn of deals to private companies, in most cases without a competitive tender. Oscar Williams
Q is for QAnon
The pandemic accelerated many different parts of our lives – our exercise goals, our declining sanity – but above all else, the spread of conspiracy theories. And there’s no better case of this than QAnon. The theory, which holds that Donald Trump is using the power of the US government to fight a group of high-profile Satanic child traffickers, has gained serious ground in the United States over the past three years. This year, two believers were elected to Congress, while millions of others turned up to protest in the name of their leader “Q”. Despite its deeply American roots, QAnon has experienced a dramatic spike in popularity in the UK, too. By October, one in four Britons had come to believe in at least one conspiracy theory linked to QAnon, according to one survey, and it’s likely that 2020 will be just the beginning of its wider dissemination throughout the UK. Sarah Manavis
R is for R Number
Ah, how the virus has made epidemiologists of us all. We are all now experts in exactly how scientists and politicians should and should not control a pandemic, and so very au fait with all the new language. There’s the “R number” (the rate of transmission – if the R number’s above 1 then you’re infecting more than one person, so it’s spreading exponentially, duh); “anosmia” (the loss of your sense of smell – one of Covid-19’s weirder symptoms); “viral load” (the rather disgusting way of describing the amount of virus in an infected person); “herd immunity” (when enough people in the population are immune to an infectious disease to stop its spread); and, of course, “coronavirus” itself: a family of viruses that cause respiratory tract infections, named after their resemblance to a “solar corona” – the glow around the sun. If you need me, I’ll be schooling Chris Whitty on Twitter. Anoosh Chakelian
S is for Sourdough
Bored while stuck indoors in the early stages of lockdown this spring, people across the UK got the itch to get creative, and baking bread became an incredibly popular pastime. It’s an activity that satisfies all of the senses: there’s the tactility involved in kneading, the pleasure in watching bread rise through the glass of a rarely cleaned oven, the delight of the aroma once that door is opened, the contentment of listening out for the hollow resonance of a well-cooked loaf, and, of course, the glee of the taste of that first buttered slice.
Sourdough proved particularly popular – not only because it was missed by many of us who were having to forgo our weekly avo-on-sourdough brunch, but because making it doesn’t require active yeast, which quickly became difficult to find in supermarkets as stockpiling struck. Sourdough does, however, require flour, and flour was the next baking item to become scarce. There was a 92 per cent increase in the purchasing of flour in the four weeks leading up to 22 March, according to retail analyst Kantar, and flour mills just couldn’t keep up.
Ahead of England’s second lockdown (which, coinciding with the return of The Great British Bake Off, really could have resulted in disaster for keen bakers), supermarkets including M&S and Waitrose anticipated the demand for flour and made sure they were stocked accordingly – a lesson well learned. Ellen Peirson-Hagger
T is for Tiger King
From late March to early May this year, everyone in the UK seemed to go through a slightly manic, chaotic phase (what can you expect from a nation locked in their houses save for one state-sanctioned walk per day?) that manifested in choosing from a selection of optional activities – Zoom quizzes, jogging, baking banana bread – and one compulsory one. Tiger King – or any equivalent addictive TV series that you can watch until Netflix passive-aggressively asks if you’re still watching.
Following previous Netflix true-crime behemoths such as Making A Murderer and The Staircase, Tiger King records the life of the zookeeper Joe Exotic, with his big cat collection, three-way marriage and unconventional celebrity. It became an early lockdown fixation point: 34.3 million people watched the series within ten days of its release on Netflix.
This year, 140 million hours of Netflix were watched globally each day, equal to 1 billion hours per week. There has been standard-issue, binge-able trash in the hyper-capitalist, glossy estate agent reality show Selling Sunset, claustrophobic escapism in the yacht crew, fly-on-the-wall series Below Deck, and saccharine girlboss dramedy Emily in Paris. There has also been some of the best TV drama for years, from the strikingly intimate TV adaption of Sally Rooney’s Normal People to I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel’s masterful examination of sexual assault. Longform TV has become the pre-eminent narrative medium over the past decade, and this year it surpassed itself just when we needed it most. Emily Bootle
U is for U-turns
An epidemic of indecision broke out at the top of UK government this year. Boris Johnson and his ministers routinely defied criticism of unpopular policies before suddenly changing course. Examples included free school meals over the holidays – twice (See also: M for Marcus Rashford), the visa health surcharge for NHS migrant workers, a second national lockdown, England’s exam result formula, Huawei infrastructure in the 5G network, the housing eviction ban, the extension of the furlough scheme, mandatory face masks in shops, the housebuilding algorithm, and counting… Anoosh Chakelian
V is for Voting
In many respects, voters across the world encountered a very different version of the ballot box this year. As Covid-19 necessitated social distancing and cast strange new shadows over the exercise of democratic rights, numerous elections were postponed and those that did go ahead were plagued with concerns over an unprecedented expansion in postal votes.
In the US in particular, Donald Trump’s sustained attack on mail-in votes ahead of the November election led to fears of voter suppression as polling day approached. Then, after Joe Biden was declared the winner, Trump attempted to use postal voting to claim that the election was rigged and his rightful victory “stolen” (See also: Four Seasons Total Landscaping).
Yet for all that was new about voting in 2020, what was perhaps most notable was just how far pre-existing trends became further entrenched – for good and ill.
On the downside, authoritarian governments continued to flourish. In Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko brutally suppressed protests against his re-election, while in Hong Kong, Beijing’s harsh new crackdown on dissent has led to democratic values being trampled and dispensed with.
But functioning, democratic expression has also appeared to surge and deepen. Poland experienced record turnout this year in a tightly fought election. So, too, did South Korea, after postal voting was made more accessible. And, in the US, not only have Republican challenges to the election result been overturned by the courts, but record numbers of Americans turned out. In these ways, at least, 2020 was also a vote of confidence in democracy itself. India Bourke
W is for Wildfires
“We can’t breathe” read the headline this June on a New Statesman cover story by Gary Younge. The powerful piece highlighted the way Covid-19 has disproportionately devastated minority communities – and newly exposed structural racism – in the UK and elsewhere.
Yet even as new vaccines raise hope of an eventual end to the pandemic, the threats posed by the climate crisis loom ever larger. This is perhaps most true of wildfires, and the lung-destroying smoke that can travel even further than their flames.
In Australia the 2020 wildfire season was the country’s worst ever, killing 33 people and destroying or displacing around 3 billion animals. In California, August’s “Complex Fire” became the first wildfire in modern history to be labelled a “gigafire”, consuming more than 1 million acres of land. While in Siberia in July, record-high temperatures led huge areas of forest, peat and tundra to burn so intensely the smoke was visible from space.
These grim events are no aberration. Increasing numbers of wildfire-driving heatwaves are likely as man-made emissions continue to rise. Equally inevitable is that the impact of such fires will be felt hardest and longest by those on low incomes and those without the insurance or resources to rebuild their lives elsewhere.
2021 will hopefully see an end to the worst of Covid-19. But as long as governments persist in falling short of urgently required emission reduction targets, the refrain “we can’t breathe” will remain painfully apt. India Bourke
X is for X Æ A-Xii
If you think you had *a year*, imagine being in one of the most consistently surprising relationships in the public eye. The tech billionaire Elon Musk and alt-pop musician Claire Boucher, aka Grimes, announced their unlikely pairing in 2018. In February of this year, Grimes released her fifth record, “an evil album about how great climate change is”, and what better way to celebrate our doomed world than to bring a baby into it?
Boucher and Musk’s first child, a son, was born in May. We all knew this would be no ordinary child – come on, look at his parents – but no one could have predicted quite how early his eccentricities would shine through. He was to be called X Æ A-12, Musk announced on Twitter. Of course he was. Until he wasn’t. Later that month, Grimes revealed on Instagram that they were changing his name to X Æ A-Xii: under California law, you can’t register a name that includes numbers. Reports suggest the baby name is pronounced “X Ash Archangel”, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
And while the rest of us were going about our ordinary little lives, trying to stay sane during a global pandemic, Musk was getting on with his plans to send one million people to colonise Mars by 2050. As well as being CEO of electric vehicle company Tesla, he is top dog at the aerospace company SpaceX. Unfortunately, when a prototype rocket was launched in December, it flew just several miles, before hitting the ground too hard and exploding upon impact. “Awesome test,” read text across the screen of a live broadcast of the launch. “Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah!!” was Musk’s response. There’s always next year. Ellen Peirson-Hagger
Y is for “You’re on mute”
Wake up, sit in front of medium screen. Occasionally look away to scroll through smaller screen. In the evening, relax in front of big screen. Repeat.
In 2020, we learned how virtual we really are. Locked away in our houses, it seemed there was absolutely nothing we couldn’t do via video call, from weddings to “Zoomerals”. At the beginning of the year, the little-known video platform Zoom had 37,000 daily active users, by November, it had more than 1.6 million in the UK alone.
Although just because we could do anything over Zoom, didn’t mean that we should. This lesson was learned the hard way by the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin, who on 15 October, during a call to discuss the US election, exposed himself on camera. The magazine fired him shortly after.
If Toobin is the winner of the worst Zoom gaffe of the year, the second prize goes to the Welsh Health and Social Services Secretary Vaughan Gething, who forgot to mute his mic when he decided to swear about his Labour colleague, also on the call. Or, perhaps second place should go to the topless Mexican senator who accidentally left her camera on during a government conference.
Then there was the dating. In the three months of strict national lockdown, dating apps reported a surge in activity. The stricter measures became in an area, the more people swiped. Virtual dates became a celebrated novelty, rising by 36 per cent. We enjoyed hours of Google Hangouts, sending deliveries to each other’s houses, eating dinner together clumsily on screen. Some even fell in love without ever meeting.
And while there were lessons in love, there were also lessons in resilience. Even the mind-numbing monotony of a weekly virtual quiz couldn’t stamp out our determination to enjoy the new normal. What is the largest port in Europe? Which countries border Mexico? The answers are burned into our skulls. We took the opportunity to waste some hours, speaking with people we used to see only rarely. In 2020, we saw them weekly; we quizzed, we laughed, we froze awkwardly when our wi-fi slowed. But mainly, we reconnected. Ellie Peake
Z is for Zoomers
If 2019 was the year of “Gen-Z will save us” then 2020 was the year when the Gen-Z bubble burst. “OK, Boomer” was flipped into “OK, Zoomer” as the social media generation were put under greater scrutiny, undoing their glowing reputation as responsible, smart and woke. This was in large part due to the rise of the social media video app TikTok, which became a lockdown scrolling staple across multiple age groups. Alongside each left-wing story, such as TikTokkers sabotaging Trump rallies, were equally prevalent horror stories of rampant racism and conspiracy theory propagation among teenagers and 20-somethings on the app.
TikTok, of course, then became the target of criticism from all sides of the political spectrum. It became a Trump obsession, as the US president spent the latter half of the year threatening to ban it. It also drew criticism from the music industry, as more and more artists appeared to be twisting tracks with the aim of them becoming a viral dance challenge.
Zoomers in 2020 will be credited for being the digital native generation who got creative as their lives were disrupted (see also: school openings and closures, exam result fiascos, the universities disaster). But they will also be remembered for having their pristine reputation tarnished as the pedestal they were put upon proved flimsy. Sarah Manavis