Review: Plague Songs Volume 3 is not satire for the faint-hearted
If one of the most appropriate word for this sort of satire is splenetic then the spleen in question is a darkly suppurating and failing organ.
Just as the two previous volumes of songs married the scabrous visual wit of award-winning cartoonist Martin Rowson with the musical gifts of Welsh playwright and musician Jon Tregenna, the latest offering sees the couple marching in funereal step through the charnel house of today’s Britain, smelling the demise of empire, church, queen and state as everything burns.
The museum of the title is found in the Number 10 Downing Street of the near-future in which a dystopian London has fallen into ruin and wrack, the palaces de-roofed and Whitehall re-wilded. The Prime Minister’s London squat is the ‘mortmain of authorised atrocities/wrought by the British State upon the world…’ ‘set in a haunted patchwork of disgust and honed dishonour.’
Behind the inconic front door is now found a faecal museum, displaying the assorted shit of British history, including prime exhibits from the rear ends of the likes of Queen Victoria, Oswald Mosley and Jimmy Savile.
You will have gleaned by now that this is not satire for the faint-hearted, but rather, full-on visual, verbal and musical assaults on its targets, substituting the usual prods and daggers of workaday cartoons for thermonuclear warheads.
The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines satire as ‘a mode of writing that exposes the failings of individuals, institutions or societies to ridicule and scorn’ and ‘Plague Songs’ does so as if equipped with the sort of sternal saw that opens up the chest in open-heart surgery.
It takes effective potshot after potshot as it lines up the failings of such target species as Dido Harding and the Test-and-Trace system that didn’t quite do either, even as it maps out the blasted territory of a post- or almost-post-Covid Britain. Along the way Rawson’s skills as a poet are very much to the fore, not least when he chances upon a range of rhymes for ‘vaccine’ which ‘acts like nitroglycerine/And when ingested! Turns your spleen/Orange then ultramarine.’ It seems like the aforementioned spleen is in worse nick than initially diagnosed.
Some of these songs are set to jaunty music, such as the portrait of the ‘Hard-faced Men’ who did well out of the pandemic, in which Tregenna channels his inner Pet Shop Boys and synthesizers to create a track which hooks itself in the mind and might well linger long enough for future generations of wicked grandparents to sing as a lullaby. The lyrics are, of course, sharply as a microtome, as the hard-faced ones of the title buy ‘shrouds to use as facemasks’ and gull ‘ministers with bullshit.’
Other lacerating musical offerings ask questions about the sort of mementoes we would save by interning them in the ground. In the case of Boris Johnson the answer to the question ‘…what love/He buries and saves’ is ‘100,000 citizens/buried in their graves.’
Spoilt for choice in a world where you couldn’t make this up when it comes to material, Rowson and Tregenna happily pillory public schools, re-casting them as B-movie sets where ‘Harrovians drive horror vans/beneath a blood-red moon’ or ‘Wykhamists hold wiccan rites/And sacrifice their kin.’ Meanwhile, the vaccine ‘Moon Shot,’ that damp PM’s squib is shot down in song and Dominic Cummings, in trademark jogger bottoms and with a sickly purple domed head, is seen perusing the ‘A1 Motor Touring Map’ just before he sets off to dismantle trust in government and adherence to the lockdown. It’s hard to take in the fact that all this happened in a year.
The range of approaches to the material includes a showcase gallery of Rowson’s fellow cartoonists to match the range of actors and performers who lend their voices such as Amy Costello, Miranda Harrison, Matt Jones, Jack Klaff and the mordant tones of Martin Rowson on ‘Bust,’ a sort of Churchillian bonus track on this dark and troubling album of our dark and troubled times. The criminal ineptitude of Cabinet ministers. The temporary morgues. The legions of unnecessary dead. You have to laugh.