borology

you know where you are with a coronavirus
it only wants to get inside us
boarding our lungs like spiky pirates
turning us into multipliers

put one under a microscope
you’ll get the full dope
a belly coiled with RNA rope
a little protein envelope

that’s it. that’s all there is
laid out for your analysis
a particle that’s a practical whizz
at the biochemical repro biz

turn that scope on the current prime minister
and you’ll find a much more puzzling creature
an opportunistic power seeker
with no discernible moral feature

the virus is easier to understand
as it propagates across the land
to nix its tricks and make a stand
you only have to wash your hands

but the PM is a problem of a deeper complexion
a master of fog and misdirection
so if you want to guard against further infection
vote him out at the next election

IMG_3011

a virus by any other name

Naming a virus has always been tricky. People want something they can talk about easily, not a long string of letters and numbers. Like saying Red Car rather than reeling off a whole licence plate. Storms do better. They get homey names, like Brendan or Hugh. Accessible, friendly names. The kind of names you can relate to whilst they tear the roof off your shed. But I’m sure even Brendan – mad as he is – would baulk at having a haemorrhagic disease named after him. (Hugh, on the other hand….)

The trouble is, if the name gets left to the media, things quickly get bent out of shape, politically-speaking.

Take Spanish Flu, for example. It wasn’t actually Spanish. It was just that after WWI, most countries suppressed news of the virus because they worried it would damage morale. Spain had been neutral, though, and had a more independent media. In fact, ironically, the Spanish people initially called it French flu, because they thought that’s where it had come from.

It’s not even as easy as naming a virus after a place. The people who live there might object to being associated with a dreadful disease (ask Hugh). This was tried for a while, though. For example, Ebola was named after a nearby river (although it wasn’t actually the NEAREST river; the Congo had already been taken); the Marburg virus was named after Marburg, in Germany, and my favourite (name, not disease) coxsackievirus, commemorating the small town on the Hudson river, upstate New York, where the virologist collected his first fecal specimens. (I  very much doubt there’s a statue in the market square.)

I’m sure virologists get twitchy when they read the news. They’re painfully and pedantically conscious of the tendency to confuse the virus with the general group it comes from, or the disease it causes. In the current pandemic, people talk about coronavirus (which is actually the virus’ family name, covering everything from SARS to the common cold) or Covid-19 (short for coronavirus disease 2019 – 2019 being the year it was identified). The actual name of the virus is SARS-CoV-2 (short for Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2). All of which is a bit much to handle when all you want to say is that you’re feeling a bit Derek.

Those same virologists would probably put the paper down, take a breath, and turn wistfully in the general direction of London – home since 1966 to the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. I don’t know what the building looks like (even though I could easily Google it), but I’m guessing it’s a gigantic, green, geodesic dome covered in spikes. Either way, I’m sure it’ll have a good supply of hand sanitizers on the way in and out.

covid19

a lexicon of old plant names from the 2020s

IMG_2072Cough-in-the-Market / Love-in-a-Lockdown / Reluctant Disclosure / Nothing-in-the-Hand / Long Blue Quarantine / Nodding Terms / Greater Stitchup / Kit Slips / False Trump / Wild Trump / Trump o’ the Dump / Red-Eyed Adviser / Two-Weeks-Wasted / Drooping Resolve / Frazzle-Headed Conspiracy / Jack-i’-the-Coffin / Lesser Politician-in-the-Dock / Go-to-Bed / Ragged Routine / Heart-Shaped Whatever / Tentative Apron / Boxed Gloves / Truth-in-a-Mask / Summer Memory / Sneezeweed

 

don’t worry about the chocolate

The car was getting low so I went to the local garage to fill up. It’s a busy, do-everything kind of place. Not only can you buy fuel, groceries, beer, wine, newspapers, magazines, but there’s an MOT, exhaust and tyre workshop right next door, too. They also run an internet shopping returns business. If you buy something online and it doesn’t fit, you can print off a ticket and they’ll take care of the rest. There’s always a lot of people at the garage, wandering in and out of the shop, pushing tyres across the forecourt. A lot of hanging around chatting and so on. With the railway station just opposite, it has a wild west, frontiers kind of atmosphere. The kind of place where if you saw a bison pull up you’d just think ‘Oh, so they’re doing that, now.’

Like everywhere else these past weeks, though, the garage is eerily quiet. I’m the only one at the pumps, and for the first time ever the workshop doors are shut. I take the parcel from the backseat and go to pay. There’s a sign at the door: Coronavirus Emergency: One customer at a time – but as I’m the only one around, I go straight in. There’s a big line on the floor and a decal of a pair of boots, so I stand on that, say hello, and wait for the woman at the counter to call me over, which she does, immediately, with a big laugh and a theatrical wave of her hand.

I haven’t seen her before. She’s a riot of colour, purple eyeshadow, scarlet lipstick and enormous, fried yellow hair roped in place by a headband. Her face slants down to the left, so I’m guessing she had a stroke at some time. She’s as vibrantly positive as her makeup, though, and we swap the usual conversational stuff with more of a buzz than normal.

I pay for the fuel, then hand over the parcel.

‘Have some chocolate,’ she says, waving to the tiers of bars and snacks to the right.
‘That’s kind, but I’ve eaten so much of that stuff lately I think I’ll explode.’
She laughs.
‘Nice way to go.’
She fusses around with the parcel, flipping it over, turning it around, flattening the label, almost hitting it with the scanner.
‘There’s a problem with your barcode,’ she says.
‘It’s a jacket,’ I say. ‘That’s all I know.’
‘I don’t care what it is, honey. I jus’ need to know where it’s going.’
She stops, and looks into the air for a second.
Eventually she says, in a distracted way: ‘That’s it! The nineteenth of March, 2018.’
‘Erm – I think it’s the second of April. Twenty twenty.’
‘No,’ she says. ‘Not today. I mean the day I dreamed all this.’
‘How d’you mean?’
‘All this,’ she says, waving the barcode checker at the window. ‘The pandemic.’
‘Oh! Wow! What happened in your dream?’
‘I saw it all. The virus. The way it snuck in. The way it spread among everybody. I saw how people were at the beginning, how they laughed about it, then got more serious, then started panic buying. How they helped each other, then got angry, started climbing over each other to get what they needed.’
‘That’s amazing.’
‘All of it. I saw it all. And you know what? There were two things they were fighting for. One of them was water…’
‘And the other was chocolate.’
‘No,’ she says, widening her eyes at me. ‘But I tell you what. This store here? Picked clean. There weren’t nothing left. And when the store was empty, d’you know what they started to eat? You know, don’t you? You know what they turned to?’

There’s a woman just finishing at the pump outside, getting ready to come inside and pay. I don’t want to be standing two metres away from the counter talking about cannibalism when she comes in, so I try to move the conversation along.
‘Worrying times,’ I say, blandly.
‘They certainly are,’ she says. ‘Ah! Now! The barcode’s gone through!’
‘Great!’
She tosses it behind her into a sack.
I can’t resist asking her one more thing about her dream before I go.
‘What happened afterwards?’ I say. ‘But if it’s bad, don’t tell me.’
She shrugs.
‘What d’you think happened?’ she says. ‘And where d’you think everybody went when they needed comfort? Yep. You got it. That’s right. The church.’
She puts the barcode reader aside, and tightens her hairband.
‘You have a nice day,’ she says. ‘And don’t worry about the chocolate.’