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Review Plague Songs by Martin Rowson and Jon Tregenna

Hammering home the reality of the pickle into which we have been summarily purloined by a cabal of crooks, liars and thieves, writes Tom King

SHAKESPEARE apparently made the most of plague-induced quarantine to write King Lear, which certainly puts my own productivity these past nine months into rather dire perspective.

Nor is it helped by Martin Rowson, irreverent cartoonist and jobbing poet, who took the opportunity over lockdown to pen an almost-daily torrent of stanzas in which he cast his impudent, ribald, deeply unsentimental gaze over the unfolding catastrophe.

This hefty assortment of verse (available at https://www.martinrowson.com/words) became Plague Songs, a collection which sometimes lives up to its elegiac title – suggestive of an ailing composer in the throes of a creative battle against their own mortality (Strauss perhaps, or maybe Schubert) – but more often levels with the humble reader, blunt and bawdy, amid the viral shit-storm.

Altogether the collection forms a somewhat depressing account of a society that would be almost alien – whose leaders have a callous disregard for life, never wasting the opportunity that a crisis provides for making a hefty amount of lucre – if it were not all too familiar.

Some verses are impressively long, others marvellously short, including one of my favourites, Matt Hancock Haiku, about a man whose sheer ineptitude is matched only by his prodigious capacity to irritate, which Rowson has distilled with laudable economy: “Matt Hancock smells his/ Soul corroding within him/ Each waking second.”

Rowson’s furious industry clearly knows no bounds – Plague Songs: The Second Wave, a sequel (in true viral fashion) hot on the heels of its forebear, this time sets the poems to music by Jon Tregenna. Performed by a host of actors and singers, it is happily available on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CJc7ddDFes&feature=youtu.be).

It’s not an easy listen, nor is it meant to be: unlike much pandemic-induced creativity, it hammers home the reality of the pickle into which we have been summarily purloined by a cabal of crooks, liars and thieves: “One should not mock the chronic sick, And nor should we mock Dominic/ Whose road-based therapies recall, Damascus-bound, those of St Paul.”

But, writing with remarkable dexterity under this rather grim brief, Rowson offers up a range of diverse and sometimes touching poetry, including a paean to his late virologist father, who sounds like quite the chap: “Now at last I know it’s Covid, I can know that you’d be proud,/ Proud in your quiet, unassailably determined way,/ The way you were when I was eight and my endemic sore throat/ Was, you proved, Coxsackievirus, by thrusting swabs deep down my throat/ And drawing what seemed ponds of blood for growing cultures in your lab.”

Since we all have a fair amount of time on our hands this winter, there is no better way to pass a few minutes each day than with Rowson’s rona-inspired reveries, one of which, at least, you’ve probably had yourself: “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.”

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