Hello from London, after a week when the government set our heads spinning again with new social distancing rules in the run-up to Christmas, and a longer-term plan to deal with the “economic emergency” that 2020 has dealt us. Looking back over the year, it’s amazing to realise how the pandemic has changed the way Londoners navigate our city, especially in terms of how we shop, eat and drink. In that spirit, FT Globetrotter has compiled readers’ suggestions of the businesses — whether fishmongers, bakers, grocers or vintners — that have brightened our dark lockdown months and will continue to be cherished when 2020 is a distant memory. Cheers to that.

I hope you enjoy my pick of the week’s stories, plus a few from elsewhere you shouldn’t miss. Click here if you’d like to receive Long Story Short by email every Friday.

1. Janet Yellen’s second act

© Andrew Harnik/AP

The news that Janet Yellen, the former US Federal Reserve chair, is set to be nominated as Joe Biden’s Treasury secretary brought a sigh of relief to observers hoping for a safe pair of hands to guide the country through its recovery. In a profile, James Politi and Colby Smith chart how the 74-year-old’s legacy at the Fed strengthens her reputation as a uniquely qualified candidate for the task at hand. The tough-minded Brooklynite is likely to impart some pragmatic wisdom along the way. As former president Barack Obama once put it:

“She doesn’t have a crystal ball, but what she does have is a keen understanding of how markets and the economy work, not just in theory but in the real world.”

2. ‘Our menu is very Darwinian’

A Quarter Pounder with cheese, Filet-o-Fish and McNuggets with BBQ sauce are not exactly classic fare for the venerable tradition that is Lunch with the FT. But that was the menu when Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson sat down in New Jersey with the McDonald’s chief executive Chris Kempczinski to talk about comfort food in a time of crisis. Mr Kempczinski was only a few months into the job, still finding his feet, when Covid-19 hit and sales plunged — presenting a company that thrives on standardisation with “countless unknowns”. He explains how the fast-food chain pushed its combination of comfort food with minimal contact to rebound this year.

“The ‘three Ds’ of drive-through, digital ordering and delivery . . . have all become far bigger sources of growth this year than he could have imagined.”

3. ‘Dandelion clocks in the digital wind’

© University of Oxford/AFP via Getty

Are you more afraid of being turned into a monkey by a dodgy Covid-19 vaccine or being infected with the disease by your local 5G mast? It is tempting to laugh at some of the outlandish conspiracy theories spreading through the “infosphere”, but Anjana Ahuja reminds us in a sharp column that nothing good can come of the pollution of this online environment, to which we are exposed daily. In fact, researchers have found a direct correlation between exposure to poor information quality and poor health outcomes. In other words, there’s a real public health cost to spreading lies online.

“People differ in their ability to judge the accuracy and trustworthiness of online information, a capacity known as e-health literacy.”

4. (Start voice controls)

© Cat O’Neil

Carrie Jade Williams was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease — a rare degenerative disorder with no cure and very few treatments — in her early 30s. In this powerful essay, the winner of this year’s Bodley Head/FT prize pulls off a skilful feat: carrying the reader through her process of writing and editing using assistive technology. Using visual cues and subtly switching voices, she is able to illustrate exactly how something that used to be unthinkingly easy has been reduced to a laborious task — at once empowering, frustrating and distressing. 

“Once this is finished I will need to edit it. Remove the voice commands. Pretend I didn’t need them. Make them fit your world.”

5. A hitchhiker’s guide to the City

© Alex Dellow/Picture Post/Hulton/Getty

After 25 years covering the Square Mile for the FT, Kate Burgess sums up what she has learnt about debt, derivatives and deadlines — and explains why The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has proved more useful than any business handbook. Some things have not changed since she was hired as a rookie reporter in 1995. Debt and ambitious bosses continue to poleaxe businesses and rob investors of returns. But others, thankfully, have. Pubs in the City do not bar women customers any more and it is no longer acceptable to tell female columnists to “stick to writing about hair and nails”. Not that it doesn’t still happen on occasion.

“I almost miss the punishment lunches convened in starchy restaurants by bosses determined to teach me the error of my ways.”

Quick hits

OTHER FT STORIES THAT HAVE CAUGHT MY EYE THIS WEEK

  • Has lockdown given us a new appreciation for the humble park bench? Isabel Berwick shares how one perch on Hampstead Heath has become her social hub while interaction was limited to two people meeting outdoors.

  • My current TV obsession, The Queen’s Gambit, a drama about an American chess prodigy, is an unlikely smash hit. Jo Ellison explores how a female-led show about a board game has become the most popular scripted limited series in Netflix history.

  • Nilanjana Roy makes a persuasive case for why we need a novel approach to truth-telling: specifically, to read more stories of democracies under threat to counteract the “fictions” of their authoritarian leaders.

  • Murad Ahmed explains why it’s not just football fans like me who think a private super league is a dangerous game. Still, investors counting the financial cost of the pandemic continue to argue for a radical breakaway competition.

  • I loved Tom Robbins’s moving appreciation of the life of Jan Morris, the travel writer hailed as the Flaubert of the Jet Age, who broke the story of Everest’s conquest and became a transgender pioneer.

Best of the rest

WHAT I’VE BEEN READING ELSEWHERE

  1. ‘Is anybody in there?’ Life on the inside as a locked-in patient A riveting Guardian Long Read tells the extraordinary story of Jake Haendel, who spent months trapped in his body suffering from “locked-in syndrome” (silent and unmoving, but fully conscious).

  2. ‘People of color’ do not belong to the Democratic Party Jay Caspian Kang skewers the “quintessentially American” idea of the immigrant’s debt to a host society, which flattens differences of culture, ethnicity and upbringing into a supposedly homogenous experience.

  3. To Die One’s Own Death Jacqueline Rose writes about the death of Sigmund Freud’s favourite daughter from complications of the Spanish flu in 1920 and asks how we can begin to confront a new toll of grief today, when unimaginable deaths are once again legion.

Before you go

Jonathan Nunn

Vittles High on the list of newfound joys to have emerged in my pandemic year in London has been Vittles: “a food newsletter for novel times”. Critic Jonathan Nunn, who has made a name for himself hunting out the hidden gems of London’s eclectic food scene, keeps scaling new heights in the discovery and defence of the new. Back in March, as his favourite restaurants and cafés began to close, he launched Vittles to host writing by newly underemployed chefs and food writers. It’s an extraordinary project, supported by reader donations and publishing the kind of writing, three times a week, that is often missing from legacy food journalism: chefs talking directly to food-lovers about what makes them tick. Do have a look.

We always want to hear your thoughts and feedback, so drop me a line at @cordeliaj or email us at longstoryshort@ft.com — and have a lovely weekend. 

Cordelia
Assistant opinion editor

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