In May 2020 the award-winning cartoonist Martin Rowson set himself the challenge of writing a Lockdown Diary in verse. The result is Plague Songs, a unique cycle of furious, bleakly comic and often offensive poems about COVID-19, fiercely inventive and desperately funny. Rowson, who recovered from the virus at the start of the year (‘sweating in freezing fits, embalmed in bed/ In sulphurous miasmata, my joints like broken walnuts,/ With hogtied eyeballs and less energy than dissipating smoke’) records in manic verse the long lockdown Summer of 2020 – coughs and sneezes, lockdown-haircuts, funerals and furloughs, hangovers and hauntings, track and trace, when Death and Pestilence were playing on the swings and visiting the elderly in their Care Homes.
Plague Songs is also book about living in Banarnia – a nightmarish world of jingoism and xenophobia, hierarchy and inequality, government incompetence, Boris Johnson’s world-beating wet dreams, and the deadly twin viruses of stupidity and selfishness. What rhymes with COVID except bovid? Is Matt Hancock the Tory Party’s answer to Fred West? Does every shroud have a silver lining?
Plague Songs is also available on CD, set to music by Welsh musician and playwright Jon Tregenna. £12 from https://www.tregni.co.uk/plague-songs-cd.html.
Cover image: Martin Rowson
Author portrait: Fred Rowson
I’m following the Science! Like a lost but trusting waif I’m chasing after wisdom And a promise I’ll be safe. I’m following the Science For its methodology Will manufacture better worlds Just made for you and me As I’m following the Science Right across the bright green fields Left unbereft by insect deaths And with new five fold yields And I’m following the Science As it leads me through the woods, Through thickets of appliances And dumped consumer goods Then I’m following the Science Though I don’t know what it means When it hurries me past clearings full Of gods caught in machines Still, I’m following the Science, Past jarred body parts in brine, Caught up in roots with some pursuits Of Dr Frankenstein’s And I’m following the Science Straight past Cottontail & Flopsy And Peter Rabbit in a cage Awaiting an autopsy And I’m following the Science Which now decks me with a halter To lead me through the deep dark wood To a thing built like an altar Then I’m following the Science Deeper in, and on we race, And the Science hands me callipers For measuring my face And I’m following the Science To see how you can be me Through the science of eugenics With a can of Zyklon B And I’m following the Science As we fall down a black hole To the bottom where a boffin Is now genemapping my soul Til I’m following the Science To the surface, with aplomb, To emerge deep in a desert Where it’s built an atom bomb Then I’m following the Science With Apollo! Riding pillion I’ll trawl his halls for carbon spoils At 500 parts per million And I’m following the Science! Though by now I’m double-blinded So I can’t see its complicity In the crimes that humankind did Through following the Science, Nor the planet that we’ve wanked on, For the Science seldom makes it clear That we’re no more than plankton And following the Science While tugging at our cocks Has merely helped to bind us To Prometheus’s rocks. So sure, follow the Science, But calculate the odds. Scientists are human too, And Heaven has no Gods. 12 May 2020
You’ve been stuck indoors so long you’re Monte Christo’d, Scratched days runed on the walls, Your eyes Ben Gunning madly, So stir crazy now most mornings you can’t stir. You’ve been stuck inside so long you’ve gone full Withnail Breakfast every morning From last night’s takeout’s tinfoil Cold Korma which you spoon in with a shoehorn You’ve been stuck inside so long that you’ve Rasputined, Charles Manson in the mirror, Homer Simpsoned in your y-fronts De-evolving til you’re now the Missing Link You’ve been stuck indoors so long you’ll Dr Manette, But you’ve been recalled to life! The shops have opened! There’s a fire sale On strait-jackets and shrouds on down the High Street! 15 June 2020
Come on, chaps! Let’s rename this land Banarnia! Just one wardrobe away to that lamp post! What the snow hides is obscene In the Realm of the White Queen That magic country ruled by dreams of ghosts Push past those mothy costumes to Banarnia, Frost glistens on the statues every night! Intellectual callisthenics Disguise our lords’ eugenics As they chomp Arbeit Mach Frei’s Turkish Delight! Just click your heels three times – you’re in Banarnia! Flying monkeys fill the skies, and no one’s certain Which one of these is pervier: Bananas getting curvier Or wizards fiddling behind the curtains Mists roll away and there it is – Banarnia So historic its past just keeps getting pastier! That weak sun is getting shinier As everyone gets whinier, And moanier and bonier and nastier! Crashlanding in Tibet? You’ll find Banarnia! That legendry land of eternal youth Where nobody grows old In our care homes, so I’m told Our secret being, never tell the truth. Climb that magic beanstalk to Banarnia! Where giants stand on stooping midget’s shoulders, The golden goose’s eggs are guano, And we drink Americanos While everything around us slowly moulders Fall down the rabbit hole, next stop’s Banarnia! Once we were big, and now we’re very small But because we once fought Hitler We can’t see we’re getting littler, Cards and jokers tell us we’re so tall Jump through the looking glass – you’re in Banarnia! That crazy place where all is back to front! And you can make up your own truth Lynch the wimps demanding proof Stirred by a farting walrus’s each grunt! The blue birds sing, there’ll always be Banarnia! Where we’re sat on our big fat white bums Thinking we’re Queen Titania! So fuck off, Michel Barnier! Banarnia! Where Christmas never comes! 15 July 2020
Boris’ has fucked The Rule of Law! And what’s in there not to adore? Now we can batter down his door. And piss upon his parquet floor, Steal everything he’s got, and more, Then sock the fucker on the jaw And he can’t even call The Law! And twats straight out of Evelyn Waugh Survey vast tracts of fen and moor Their family’s owned since days of yore And every fat complacent boor Assumes they’ll own it evermore – But not without The Rule of Law! For ‘libertarians’ ignore That mutual aid’s required before You smash the state and ditch The law. They think that they can simply whore After loot and furthermore, Unbound by rules that they deplore, They can pillage even more And stash the swag safely offshore! But typically, they don’t explore The flipside in this tug-o-war: That WE can steal from THEM, and nor Can they stop us, without The Law. Nor will the sound of dropping jaw Of Tories who’ve been so cocksure Prevent the spilling of their gore Without protection of The Law. So now they’ve dumped The Rule of Law Let’s prise open their grasping claw, Deprive them of their homes galore, Smash their Oxbridge boatclub oar, Land our ships upon their shore, Bring down our hammers just like Thor As we even up the score. And if they scream ‘WHERE IS THE LAW?’ They should’ve thought of that before They let ‘Boris’ fuck The Law. 15 September 2020
In the hot stiffling tiny room The cold dead eyes blanked Even an iota Of their torment or their tears Or their mourning as the dead voice Catechized on quotas, Spoke flatly of the processes, Rules, restrictions, retributions, The penalties compounded by each error, The limits on their movements, The denial of information, The incremental, automatic ratchetting of terror Until, right at the end, The mask slipped for an instant As they stood to be led out and their feet began to burn: The demon scratched its horns and shrugged And mumbled, ‘I just don’t get it. When will these klutzes ever learn? Why do they keep on coming here at all? Ah well. Funny old world.’ The demon coughed into the sulphurous Air and picked up a pile of ledgers As on the wall behind it The current Hell Secretary’s portrait Got crispier at its edges While they were led away To a distant pit, to wait. And wait. And wait And wait among rank upon innumerable rank Of those who’d made it this far, Far further than the corpses washing through the clinker And clumped along the Styx’s opposite bank. 30 October 2020
The bankers and the viruses Arranged to have a dinner Where the viruses looked tired And the bankers slightly thinner. The viruses proposed a toast: ‘Chaos! And Bonhomie! To our eternal bond in Crashing the Economy!’ The bankers bridled. Several laughed. A fat one drawled: ‘Pur-leeeze! We’re the Engines of Prosperity! And you’re just a disease! And we’re nothing like you! This comparison’s obscene! And we’ll prove it by investing To create a new vaccine!’ ‘Speaking,’ the viruses replied, ‘As disease to disease, There’s no need to display your guilt- Edged insecurities! Be proud of your achievements And how you make your cash! We’ve loved ’08 and ’29 And every other Crash! ‘True, you could be more proactive; Fewer sins of omission, But you make up for that with the Monstrous size of your commission! It’s just you lack all agency, Just do what bankers do, Which lacks the subtle beauty Of a nasty bout of flu! But still, your avarice and greed, Like our infectious ways Have thankfully hastened mankind Towards the End of Days! With poverty and misery And all kinds of how d’you do! Eventually we’ll kill them off Together! Cheers! Salut!’ The bankers rose in fury At the speaking of this libel; Respectable and titled, they flung ‘Who’s Who’ like a bible! Screamed ‘We will make a vaccine That will see you commies off!’ But in their midst a banker At this point began to cough. You remember that scene near the end Of Raiders of the Lost Ark? Like that, but as to details I shall leave you in the dark. Many of those bankers died, Others were very ill. The viruses then did the decent thing And paid the bill. 26 November 2020
‘Eerily reminiscent of Christopher Logue’s jazz poetry of the 1960s.’
‘Powerful stuff. Words and music as angry and disturbing as these present times.’
‘Angry, absurd, witty and strangely sad, these songs capture the highs and lows of the COVID crisis; the personal tragedies and the public farce. Rowson’s dextrous verse proves once again that he can really do this poetry lark. Not bad for a bloke who colours in for a living.’
‘hammers home the reality of the pickle into which we have been summarily purloined by a cabal of crooks, liars and thieves.’
‘disgusting, deranged… sick and offensive’