Plague Songs

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

Sample Poems

Following the Science

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

Recalled to Life

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

Banarnia!

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

The Rule of Law

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

The Migrants

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 Banquet

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

Reviews

‘Eerily reminiscent of Christopher Logue’s jazz poetry of the 1960s.’

Jonathan Pryce

‘Powerful stuff. Words and music as angry and disturbing as these present times.’

Ken Loach

‘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.’

Luke Wright

‘hammers home the reality of the pickle into which we have been summarily purloined by a cabal of crooks, liars and thieves.’

Morning Star

‘disgusting, deranged… sick and offensive’

Daily Mail