UK plc19

CUT TO: Boris Winton dashing with a wonky trolley through the Value Valley of Death / all squinty eyes and minty breath / a big-haired, bad-mouthed, Supermarket Macbeth / out of luck and out of his depth / smiling & waving at all the MPs misbehaving / and though none of them seem to impress him a lot / even he can see that the place is hot / and he’d better be grateful for whatever he’s got

CUT TO: Boris Marat eating a hard cheese salad in his big tin bath / having a soak, having a laugh / when in comes Farage for his autograph / pulls out a knife from his Union Jack corset / and the next thing you know the PMs bought it / and Farage gets punished for his act of treachery / with a column in the Telegraph and a job in the Treasury

CUT TO: Boris Who striding out of the Tardis / hawing and guffawing and saying now what IS this? / those EU Daleks are REALLY taking the piss / they’re all like: Information! and Negotiation! while exterminating the Brits / but sadly, his sonic screwdriver’s reduced to thrummings / ‘cos the battery’s been nicked by his assistant Cummings

CUT TO: Boris ‘Tom’ Jones hiding in the cupboard / with his pants on his head for ol’ Mother Hubbard / but when she gets there / and finds him and the cupboard bare / she goes completely spare / all Travis Bickle / beats him to death with a gherkin pickle / ‘That’s what you get for screwing up the shopping!’ / then happily gets out her mop and starts mopping

Meanwhile, down in the crematorium,
at least one successful British emporium,
Look! There’s Auntie Ollie! Waving from the plate!
C’mon on in, Jim – the Covid’s great!

Corona Q&A

Through the magical process
of viral zoonosis
a pathogen
can jump from animal to human
in the belly of a vector
some kind of primitive blood collector
that’ll carry the virus but won’t get sick
like a horseshoe bat or a blacklegged tick

 the virus itself is teeny tiny
globoid and spiny
really – just about as small as you like
120nanometers spike to spike
with a strand of coded RNA
safely coiled away
in a protein envelope
that’ll get posted down the slope
of your upper respiratory tract
especially given the lack
of basic PPE
–  something we see
in the UK today


Please address any further questions
to Michael Covid or Virus Johnson


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.


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


pandemickey mouse

mickey mouse comes over all big heady
foam handed, numb-eared, unsteady
donald duck shakes his feathery butt & gets ready

flaps around for a crap plastic gown
and an itty-bitty mask that keeps falling down
yelling and gelling and generally running around

IMG_2033minnie mouse is more minimal
a thoroughly practical cartoon animal
sighs as she puts aside the infection control manual

meanwhile, up on the tv, there’s pluto!
guffawing, exploring stats on the computo
(quite how he got THAT job I DON’T know)

fit test

the TV flickers
look at this picture
a doctor in a ducking stool
poised above the viral pool
masked & aproned
by a grateful nation
sorry for the technical glitch
sometimes medicine’s a bitch
but she’s no snitch
she’s a wise woman not a witch
she’s braver than that
and anyway, PPE doesn’t stretch to a hat
there’s no such thing as bad weather
just bad clothes
as well she knows
and as this thing goes
so does she
they film the whole ducking ceremony
and don’t worry
she’s more loved than ever
they’re all like: come live with me and be my love
and don’t forget to double glove

in a galaxy far, far away
cluster one clips cluster two
the system gets busted
everything and everyone flung out & dusted
spiralling off on a whole new adventure
in this cold and glittering universal architecture


It’s the end of the day. The window by the coordinator’s desk is all the way open, and a sultry breeze drifts in off the corrugated metal roofing of the document storage shed next door. I’ve been helping the coordinator through most of the afternoon, answering the phone, processing referrals, sorting out problems. It’s had its manic moments, as it always does, but mostly it’s been eerily quiet. I’ve heard the phrase ‘the calm before the storm’ a few times now. It almost makes me want the storm to come, just to get it over with. I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Ethan, one of the senior nurses, has come back to the office after sending his last patient back into hospital.
‘They’re shoving everyone out, regardless,’ he says. ‘I know they’re supposed to clear the decks for the C19s, but seriously? I wouldn’t be surprised to see a whole herd of them wandering along the prom pushing drip stands.’

Ethan has a fantastic way of saying these things, raising his eyebrows, staring at you for a second with wide eyes, then dropping his jaw, rocking back in the chair and laughing energetically. He’s an experienced nurse, with a background in so many areas of acute medicine – sexual health clinics, A and E, ITU and so on – he’s definitely earned his stripes. He’s a great person to talk to about the pandemic, because as well as all his knowledge and experience and great love of nursing, he has an impish sense of fun that leavens the seriousness of the whole affair and makes it less overwhelming.

So, of course, after a little while talking about the strange businesses of viruses, whether they’re living things or not, the alien way they’ve evolved alongside mammals, we soon move on to some of the other weird organisms he’s come across.

‘The Sexual Health Clinic was good for that,’ he says, one leg crooked over the other, idly tracing the arched line of his eyebrow with a fingernail. ‘I saw some weird things there, I can tell you. There’s one called Trichomonas vaginalis. It’s this ‘orrible little protozoan parasite that lives in the vaginal tract or the urethra. Men can get it but it’s mostly women. Anyway, it’s a disgusting little thing. Shaped like a pear with these flagella whipping about. Lives on scraps of dead cells, causing infection. I saw one under the microscope. It looked happy enough, swimming around on the slide. I think it actually saw me.’ And holding on to the back of the chair with one hand, he suddenly tips back, sticks his legs out and kicks them like he’s doing the backstroke at the pool, waving up at himself looking down through the lens of the microscope. ‘Coo ee!’ he says. Then he straightens again. ‘We had one woman come in. She said she knew she had a dose and had been trying to cure herself.’
‘I hate to ask – but – how?’
‘She’d been rubbing her fanny with raw hamburger. You know – to tempt them out. To tempt them out!
He stares at me for a second, then laughs.
‘It’s true, though!’ he screams. ‘Honest to God! I’m laughing, but it’s true!’

buckeye bev

‘Here I am, mate. In ‘ere. The Top Shed.’

I have to say, Eric looks quite content despite his condition, laid out on the bed long and straight as a railway sleeper, his head elevated on a bank of pillows, his gnarled hands coupled across his belly.

I’m wearing full PPE, so I rustle as I come into the room, waving like a friendly alien.
‘Oh – watch out!’ he says.

If I didn’t know Eric used to drive steam trains, I could’ve made a reasonable guess. It’s not just the memorabilia all around the room, the plaques and models, the faded black and white photos of men in overalls or civic chains, leaning in to shake hands against a background of gigantic engines and so on. It’s that taking him all in – his nineteen fifties black frame spectacles, the gap in his front teeth for holding his pipe, the deeply grooved lines in his face, sculpted by miles of cinder track, years of squinting out of side windows at a hundred miles an hour – well – he absolutely looks like one. All he needs is a neckerchief and a cap. And if it’s true the chassis has been somewhat reduced by age and illness, still it looks like there’s plenty of coke left in the firebox.

‘How are you bearing up?’ I ask him, setting my back down and smiling over the top of my mask.
‘Oh I’m alright!’ he says, cheerfully. ‘It’s you lot I worry about. What a time, eh?’
‘Tell me about it.’

We chat whilst I carry out the examination. He tells me about his long years on the railway, the different places he worked. London. Abroad.

‘’Course – it’s changed a lot now. There’s a lot more women drivers, for a start. Which is a good thing! We always used to have ‘em, of course, but not so many. I remember one ol’ gel. We called her Buckeye Bev. She was funny, she was. And strong? She was stronger ‘n me! She could put her shoulder under a coupling chain, lift it up, and lift the hook with her hands. You should try it sometime. It’s not easy!’

As if to demonstrate, I bend down to fetch something out of my bag. The masks we’ve been issued with are so flimsy and hopeless, it actually unhooks from around my ear and swings free of my face.
‘Oops!’ I say, straightening up again and putting it back in place. ‘Sorry! I’m like some kind of nursing clown.’
‘You’re alright,’ he says. ‘Don’t worry. I don’t reckon I’ve got this thing.’
‘Trouble is, without testing we’ve got no idea.’
‘Why in’t they testing, then?’
‘Who knows, Eric? I don’t think they’ve got the stuff. They test people in the hospital. But so far, out in the community, there’s not much happening. They’re trying to ramp it up. There’s just a shortage of kits.’
‘Poor planning,’ he says. ‘As per usual.’
After I’ve taken his blood pressure he straightens the sleeve of his dressing gown and laughs, a deep and wheezy chuckle.
‘Buckeye Bev!’ he says. ‘Blimey! I hadn’t thought about Buckeye Bev in forty years, and there she is, plain as I see you, uncoupling an engine with her bare hands. I tell you what – she was something else!’

My mask rides up when I smile.