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The title of Laurie Lee’s sublime memoir came to me today as I left home to drive to Moodie Davitt HQ in London. And although it was midwinter as opposed to the midsummer in the title of the fine English writer’s sequel to Cider with Rosie, I was in similarly reflective mood as the narrator in the later work.
“It was 1934. I was nineteen years old, still soft at the edges but with a confident belief in good fortune.”
My rewrite, played out in my head, ran slightly differently. “I was 63, pushing 64, rough as hell around the edges and wondering what all this ill fortune meant.” My mind, you will not be surprised to know, was preoccupied with the novel coronavirus, now renamed COVID-19, a suitably sinister-sounding acronym for a sinister disease.
COVID-19 has seen travel retail sector projections torn up all over the planet. At the beginning of the year all was set fair for a bumper year, driven by the early Lunar New Year festive period, coming just weeks after the bumper Christmas and New Year’s celebrations.
And then. Crunch. We all got hit by a very large, very dark bird. A Black Swan.
Over the past few weeks I have not only had to commentate on what COVID-19 means for the travel retail business in general, but contemplate what it means for mine. From the start I was determined that this crisis – which we identified early and commented on accordingly – would see us at our best, providing timely, accurate, non-sensationalist coverage of the kind of Black Swan development that transforms (at least for some time) a business sector.
For the unfamiliar, I am referring to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s 2007 masterpiece, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.
Taleb’s black swan theory is a metaphorical description of an event that shocks, has a major effect, and tends to be post-rationalised. In travel retail terms is COVID-19 a Black Swan? Most certainly. For although I and other commentators have long said the Korean travel retail market – the world’s biggest – has an overwhelming and therefore potentially unhealthy reliance on Chinese shoppers, I’ve yet to meet a single industry pundit or analyst who picked – or even remotely considered – such a catastrophic development. We are talking about a pan-industry reduction in the travel and therefore spending of the single nationality which has brought the travel retail community little but good news for the past two decades.
One wishes, naturally, that you could see Black Swans coming. With Taleb’s variety of the bird, of course, one cannot. One cannot prepare for something you never knew existed.
All this was on my mind as I walked out this midwinter morning. Black swans are dark and so is the news they bring. So, for a moment, was my mood. And then I looked to the ground and saw the sight that each year makes my heart sing and my spirit soar. I saw the first daffodils of the season, bowing shyly to the world in their shiny new yellow garb. Though unseasonably early (global warning is not a black swan, we have known about it and could have prevented it for years), the sight was no less welcome than if it had heralded the first day of spring.
Daffodils represent rebirth, new beginnings. They are one of the first perennial flowers to bloom after (or in this case amid) the harshness of winter. In Wales, if you spot the first daffodil of the season, your next year will be filled with wealth. According to Chinese legend, if a daffodil bulb is forced to bloom during the New Year (and with the forced extension of the Lunar New Year break in China, I think we can argue it is still New Year), it will bring good fortune to your home.
Given that I have a Welsh son-in-law and many Chinese friends, I will combine the two beliefs. The daffodil, not the Black Swan, should now become our metaphor. COVID-19 has not reached its inflection point (in this case a peak) yet. But it soon will. And like that winsome daffodil in my garden, that moment will spell rebirth.