The Human League – ‘Louise’ (bar by bar review)

A man walks up to you and your friend in a nightclub and says, “I like your dancing. Do you want to come on tour with my band?” Do you assume he’s being saucy because he’s been on the rock’n’roll mouthwash and tell him to sling his hook? Or, do you go home, get your mum’s permission, then make the 5th best selling single of the entire decade?


In the peculiar way that life occasionally imitates art, so Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall chose the second option in their very own Choose Your Own Adventure book. 40 years, 20 million records, 5 UK top ten albums, 15 UK top twenty singles and the 23rd most successful single in UK chart history later and while I haven’t actually asked them I’m going to assume that they don’t regret joining The Human League rather than going to work in Gregg’s at the bottom of Fargate instead.

I was so very close to choosing “Let Me Go” by Heaven 17. If you’re a scholar on the beginnings of electronic music or simply a fan of members of Sheffield bands falling out with each other then you’ll know that the two out of Heaven 17 that aren’t the singer were previously the two out of The Human League that aren’t the singer. Seeking someone to be the one out of The Human League that isn’t either of the ones out of Human League that aren’t the singer, ie, a singer, they chose Phil Oakey who also wasn’t a singer but who, in the words of no less an authority on the origins of electronic music than The Galway Advertiser, “looked like a pop star”.

Which begs the question. What does a pop star look like?

We don’t have any pictures to prove it because Instagram wasn’t invented until 2010, but in my mind Phil Oakey was an amalgam of the first three and that’s how I choose to picture him. Actually, Glasgow newspaper The Herald has a 1978 picture of The Human League while the two soon to be the two out of Heaven 17 were still the two out of The Human League, and Phil Oakey looks more like Nicholas Cage would look if he played 1978 Phil Oakey in a biopic that got panned on Rotten Tomatoes rather than, you know, the actual Phil Oakey out of The Human League: see for yourself. Mad innit?

Citing “musical differences” (i.e. they could play an instrument) the two soon to be the two out of Heaven 17 made like my trousers in Mr Clay’s woodwork class one day in 1984 and split forever. They hired the singer (Glenn Gregory) that they originally wanted in the first place and ceded the name “The Human League” to Phil Oakey in return for Phil Oakey taking on The Human League’s accumulated debts plus 1% of the royalties from the next Human League album. It kind of all worked out in the end. Heaven 17 gave us stonkers like “Penthouse and Pavement”, “Fascist Groove Thing”, “Come Live With Me” and another of those songs that everyone is born knowing the words to, one which will forever be associated with Mark Renton falling in love:

And don’t tell me you’ve never chanted “TEMP-TAY-SHUN” in a mock baritone voice before because I was watching through your kitchen window when you did it. While they were chucking that lot at us, The Human League (not to be confused with The Humane League, who made very little impression on the charts in the 1980s)  gave us #bangerz like “Love Action”, “Fascination”, “Mirror Man” and the song sandwiched between “Two Tribes” and “Last Christmas/Everything She Wants” in the list of the best selling UK singles of the 1980s, “Don’t You Want Me”.

Throw in tracks like “Being Boiled”, “The Lebanon” and “Life On Your Own” and I bet you’re now thinking something along the lines of, “Jiggins! I’d quite forgotten how many corking ‘tunes’ The Human League had put out!” Amirite?


Let’s return to “Don’t You Want Me”, the last single taken from the album “Dare!” and a song that Phil Oakey hated so much he made it the last track on side 2 of the album. The now-famous video follows the break-up of a movie actress and a film director.

“Louise” was cited to be the follow-up single and first track taken from the next album, “Hysteria”. The lyrics are about the same couple from “Don’t You Want Me”. The film director sees the actress and because his initial anger at the break-up has subsided, he still thinks he can win her win her back; according to Phil Oakey, “It’s about men thinking they can manipulate women when they can’t, even conning themselves that they have when they haven’t.”

Yvie Oddly enough, “Hysteria” was also the name of an album by another band from Sheffield, hoary old denim pop-metallers Def Leppard. “Hysteria” also happened to be the name of the fourth album by both bands. Both bands were formed in 1977, and Def Leppard’s third gig was as support for… The Human League. Not only that but the video for Louise was directed by Steve Barron, who would, predictably, later go on to work with Def Leppard too.

As it happens Virgin decreed that “The Lebanon” was to be the first single from “Hysteria”. That was followed in the summer of 1984 with “Life On Your Own”, presumably because of its jaunty calypso vibes and summery “winter is approaching / there’s snow upon the ground” lyrics. “Louise” was finally released in October 1984 and reached a merely respectable number 13 on the poptastic hit parade. It’s fair to say that Virgin, who were the ones who pushed for “Don’t You Want Me” to be released at all, made a cock-up as large as the blinder that they’d played on the previous album.

Here’s the deal. I play the video and I write down what comes to mind as it unfolds, like the great MBMs and OBOs in the Guardian. This is how I choose to review music; because this is my blog, and not yours. Shall we?



00:00 “Louise” comes in at 4:06, which, whilst not exactly “Lord of the Rings”, is still on a par with “The Dark Knight Rises”. It’s black and white, which is shorthand for ‘arty’.

Apropos of nothing, probably my favourite musical film of the 1980s was also in black and white.

The film is basically a vehicle for the soundtrack, which is Prince’s “Parade” album. You know the one – “Kiss”, “Mountains”, “Anotherloverholenyohead”, total screaming genius. The film – and let’s be fair to it – is very much not a work of total screaming genius, but it does have charm and sparkle and the first leading role for Kristen Scott Thomas. She received two prestigious nominations for the role of Mary Sharon (Golden Raspberry for Worst Supporting Actress, Golden Raspberry for Worst Newcomer) and without Prince personally picking her out for the lead role we wouldn’t have had Fiona in “Four Weddings…”, Katherine in “The English Patient” or Belinda Friers in “Fleabag”. So now you have something else to thank Prince for.

Trailer #1 for “Under The Cherry Moon” however no one should even own up to, let alone be thankful for.

This video, as mentioned above, was directed by Steve Barron who also worked in various roles on a number of promotional videos for minor pop hits that you probably haven’t of, like “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson, “Take On Me” by A-ha, and “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits. And, quite apart from working with The Human League and Def Leppard, Barron also worked on the videos for Heaven 17’s biggest hits, “Temptation” and “Come Live With Me”. The circle of life is complete.  

00:04 As the “catchy lolloping bassline” (© Wikipedia) kicks in, a canal boat appears from under a bridge in aerial view and grows towards the top of the screen. I’ve decided to avoid mentioning the obvious erotic imagery in this scene, ie. it looking a lot like a growing erection. No mention of it at all, see.

And just because it took me a little while to find, here is where the “action” in this video takes place.

00:10 Art. Phil Oakey’s face is in complete darkness as the vocal starts, but as the canal boat emerges from beneath the bridge his face is revealed. Clever. Gone are the stark, asymmetrical haircuts of the early 80s (I always think they are the sort of haircuts that Kraftwerk would have made if they were hairdressers, which, in the case of The Human League at least, was almost entirely by design). This ‘do is less Kraftwerk, more Paul Young in his “Every Time You Go Away” period.

For reasons that I hope will be revealed shortly, Phil Oakey is speaking the lyrics into a CB-radio style handset. Possibly it’s just Art.

00:22 Two odd things happen. Firstly, a London AEC Routemaster double decker bus drives over the bridge at high speed and then performs a handbrake turn so that Susan Ann Sulley, wearing the same trench coat as in the video for “Don’t You Want Me” (so we are reliably informed by various Internet sources) can jump off. An advertisement on the back of the bus says, “Louise”. She is followed off the bus by some goyt (a general insult that the Urban Dictionary tells us is especially for people who are ‘very tall and have big chins’) played by ver League’s keyboardist Ian Burden. As the camera pans away it focuses on a large painted eye, on the advert on the side of the bus, because at this point why not?

And in a line that is definitely going to come back and bite him, Phil Oakey sings, “her face was older, just a little rough”.

For the sake of people who suffer from anxiety or an elevated heart condition, it should be noted that the stunt with the bus is the last high-action moment in the video.

00:30 Ah. The close-up on the eye was for the purposes of a ‘match cut’. This is a film transition where one thing in the frame is replaced by something similar, of a similar size and shape in a similar position, in the next frame, the something similar being Joanne Catherall’s left eye. See? Art.

She pins a grammatically-inept handwritten note saying, “Goodbye” (it’s underlined in the note, that’s not a hyperlink) to a wall where it joins many of a similar ilk: “IM GOING DONT FOLLOW”, “I HAVE LEFT YOU”, and so on. I’m sensing a bad break-up. I’m good at reading nonverbal cues, you know.

00:37 Ah, It was a reel-to-real tape recorder, not a CB radio, which means we’re not likely to encounter Kris Kristofferson in this video I guess. We see Phil Oakey’s canal boat is stacked with books in a manner that it pleases me to describe as “higgledy-piggledy”, a linguistic construction we should all make the effort to employ more. When I worked on North Wharf Road in Paddington there was a canal boat in the canal basin behind us that sold second hand books. I went one lunch with Charlotte Edwards (not the famous cricketer) but didn’t buy anything. That’s it, that’s the whole anecdote.

00:51 Joanne Catherall emerges from the living quarters of the canal boat and dives into the river. Possibly this is an allusion to Douglas Adam’s first Dirk Gently novel where Macduff dives into the water. I can’t think why it would be though and at the moment this remains a completely unexplained piece of lowkey action.

If you’re thinking about diving into any of the major waterways in London, I can only advise, “don’t”. It would be about as detrimental to one’s health as diving head first onto the Westway.

00:52 It was to cue up another match cut, apparently. As she emerges from the water in the canal, Catherall sits up in a hot tub in a bikini (she’s in the bikini, not the hot tub, which is a variation of the “why was the tiger in your pyjamas?” gag). Just like that gag, this edit fails too, because it cuts away from the canal scene too soon so the visual link is never established. Also falling under the category of things not yet established is why Catherall is in both a posh hot tub and a posh bikini.

01:04 If it turns out that this is the guy who got dumped in favour of the goyt, this will be the reason why. Of all the major crimes committed during the 1980s, names on windscreens was the worst. It’s not even like he’s put his own name, which is what you would normally have seen: “DARREN” and “SHARON”. He’s just put “ME”, which, given that he is not the character of Ashildr from Doctor Who, just makes him look like a twat.

01:14 ME drives past Phil Oakey on his singing Barge’O’Books (which we soon see is called “The Louise”) as Sulley and the Goyt (he really is, I know it’s the 80s but he’s basically wearing a Bolero jacket with a very low cut vest top underneath. The only other people who habitually flash this much cleavage in public are members of the Love Island cast a month after the show has ended) have a romantic stroll alongside the canal. In contrast with the Goyt’s flesh-flashing, Sulley is wearing said trench coat even though it’s the middle of the day in what looks like a black and white heatwave. Well, she is Northern.

01:25 I lied about the action but if you’re a sensitive disposition please note before reading on that he doesn’t get hurt. ME, hurtling along The Common next to Grand Union Canal Walk, is distracted by the sight of his former paramour and her new paramour and carelessly steers his Vauxhall Viva up the curb and almost into the canal! Gosh, this is exciting.

01:32 ME leaps out of the car and stars after them. For no reason other than Art, we see a close-up of the words “any bitterness bore” being typed on a typewriter, which is like a modern computer but with less RAM, as those words are being spoken by Phil Oakey. Proper art school, this.

01:45 Sulley stares back at ME from beneath that menacing fringe, her eyeliner ablaze with indignation. ME stares at Goyt. Goyt stares at ME. ME stares at Sulley (who is obviously the titular Louise). It’s all a bit like this scene in Rocky Horror Picture Show where they are chucking Eddie about just after they sing “Eddie’s Teddy”. 

02:14 Despite being parked on perfectly flat ground 12 feet from the canal and having to mount the curb to do so, ME’s car throws itself headfirst into the canal. We see “LOUISE” on the windscreen as it’s about to be swallowed by the waves forever, which in the context of this video is still one of the more subtle metaphors employed.

02:20 I wish to revise my earlier opinion about the worst crimes of the 1980s. Here we have one which is worse still, a brass solo using a cheap synthesized brass sound rather than, you know, just a brass instrument. Sonically, it’s the one thing in the song that really anchors it to the 1980s and it’s cheaper than a Sinitta video.

The middle eight features some magnificent shots of Phil Oakey looking mean and moody in a 1980s pop video sort of way. Swoon!

02:44 Phil Okay now writes, “time heals all wounds” in a notebook, which I guess is a visual reference to the typewriter scene earlier but at this point, really, who can tell. Also, and I never really thought about this before even though it came out 35 years ago and I must have heard it in every single one the intervening years because hackchewelly I quite like The Human League, it does seem a little odd, possibly even indulgent, to have a spoken coda after the middle eight in a song that is basically a spoken monologue anyway, apart from the line, “as if we were still lovers” in the chorus. Huh.

02:59 Catherall is reading a book in the bath now. Talk about walking on the wild side. Phil Oakey, fully suited and booted, lies top’n’tail in the hot tub next to her. The book she is reading is called “Louise” even though the cover clearly features her eyes in close-up and not those of Sulley/Louise.

For some reason I’m getting strong Nick Cave vibes from Phil Oakey at this point.

03:27 Amazing. ME is sat atop his waterlogged Vauxhall in the middle of the canal, presumably delivering a withering satire on the epigram, “no man is an island”.

03:39 Phil Oakey and Catherall drive away on the Louise bus which now seems to be stacked with the books from the Barge’O’Books. As the song fades, ME is still marooned on top of the car, watching the book that Catherall was reading in the bath earlier as it floats past.

What’s the verdict?

I think it’s only fair to take the song and the video separately.

The song is indeed one of the standouts from the album. Alongside “Life on your Own”, they show a more wistful, melancholy and almost more mature take on pop than we’ve seen before from ver League. It isn’t the most subtle song lyrically, and there are points where Phil Oakey’s voice isn’t particularly strong – weirdly for someone with a voice that sounds like a Grenoside Bary White, he sometimes seems ill at ease with some of the slower, lower notes. But in itself the song is just brilliant pop music – it’s original, it has hooks, and it’s a little quirky. I’m not sure I would rate it as the best song on “Hysteria” – personally I would give that crown to “Life on your Own” – but it’s up there as one of The Human League’s best songs from their imperial phase (Dare/Hysteria). 8/10

There are two problems with the video. The first is that the video is not served by being in black and white. It’s not even particularly strong or expressive black and white, it’s the equivalent of the most basic stock camera app black and white filter. It looks cheap. The second, and most serious failure, is that it’s pretty aimless. It simultaneously follows the lyrics of the song too closely, and not closely enough. It intersperses arty shots that require interpretation (like the hot tub scenes) with really, awfully cheesy scenes (like the car crash and sitting on the car in the middle of the canal). It tries too hard to be arty and clever but comes across, as MTV dubbed it, as ‘drab’. 1/10

This single does represent the end of the group’s imperial phase. A fallow period followed up to the release of the “Crash” album in 1986. Produced by Jam & Lewis, it sounds like a second rate Jam & Lewis album with Phil Oakey singing – they even used different female backing vocalists in places, omitting Sully and Catherall.

And in what must be one of the most bizarre marketing decisions of all time, Phil Oakey decided he wanted French photographer Guy Bourdin to shoot the cover for “Crash”. Now, I have to say that I’m a photography fan and Bourdin is one of my favourites. His imagination and use of colour are incredible, but he is slightly notorious for his depiction of women in his shots – especially in the advertising shots he did for Charles Jourdan shoes, where the women are quite frequently just appendages of the shoes. He is not and has never really been a portrait photographer. 

When I read that he wanted to omit Phil Oakey from the shots and tried to get Joanne Catherall to do handstands in a mini skirt, then I’m not surprised at all. I make no comment as to the rights and wrongs of that choice but it is entirely in keeping with a Guy Bourdin photograph. To hire Guy Bourdin to shoot a Guy Bourdin photograph and then complain when Guy Bourdin tried to shoot a Guy Bourdin photograph is a bit pointless. It’s like complaining that David Bailey took your photo in black and white against a white background, or that Ellen von Unwerth used high-contrast, saturated colours. If you don’t want a Guy Bourdin photograph, why hire Guy Bourdin? 

Take this as an example. Are you really surprised when you don’t get a soft, Mario Testino portrait instead?

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Kate Bush – ‘Experiment IV’ (bar by bar review)

The fourth in this music-writing experiment brings together horror, sci-fi, murder, Florence Nightingale, Dawn French off the telly, a singing ghost, plus Kate Bush serving tea and packages them into a video that Top of the Pops deemed “too violent to show” even as the show itself was presented by, well, Jimmy Saville so insert your own joke here. Are you ready for “Experiment IV”?


Such as it exists at all, the conversation around using sound to injure and kill centres upon two points: whether the sound can be so loud that the sheer volume kills; and whether the oscillations in the body produced by the sound waves can essentially shake you to death. This is a blog about pop music (I originally misspelt that as ‘poop music’ which as a scatalogical parapraxis will be idly funny three paragraphs from now so put a pin in it for the moment) and not really the right forum for such ruminations.

However, in the course of my research (I spend longer going down right-angled rabbit holes for each of these reviews than I did on my dissertation, I swear) I did discover that there is a near-mythical NASA technical report that purports to have discovered the exact frequency for making your eyeballs vibrate. I suppose in theory that if delivered with sufficient volume and intensity, this frequency would make your eyeballs pop in a distinctly Ren & Stimpy manner. If you’re interested, and can be arsed to find it, which I can’t, beyond a lazy 5-minute Googling, it is the catchily-titled “NASA Technical Report 19770013810” and you can find it alongside much other detail about bodily vibrations (oo-er missus) discussed in this paper: The Ghost in the Machine. Knock yourself out.

Apropos of nothing, here is my least favourite clip ever featuring eyeballs.

Taken from Lucio Fulci’s “Zombi 2” (aka “Zombie”) I can find no fault whatsoever with the title of this clip as it appears on YouTube.

Of course, there is one other use for noise that is intended to do injury to a person and that is the so-called ‘brown noise’ wherein brown is used as a metonym for poo (you can take the pin out now, that was the funny bit). As far as your hardly disinterested author can discover the whole thing appears to be an urban legend (VICE suggests that this spoof article from the New Scientist may be the root cause). There does seem to be a story about The Grateful Dead trying it at a concert and periodically the urban legend will come back when some hack claims that a band or DJ played it during a gig, but there is only one documented and peer-reviewed scientific appearance of the brown noise and I suggest that this will likely be the first, last and only.

Excellent! 500 words in, 500 words of shit, 250 words about shit, and we still haven’t mentioned the bloody video we’re all here to discuss. It’s going well, listeners.


There was a cowboy in the White House (no change there then) and a crook in Downing Street (no change there then). In a zenith moment for blue riband UK journalism, The Scum took a moment out of phone hacking and publishing private medical records to accuse the almost life-long vegetarian Freddie Starr of eating a hamster. Jeremy Bamber was sentenced to a minimum of 25 years, 35 years ago, and still sees no prospect of a successful appeal even though the foundations for his conviction are less firm than, say, Tokyo city centre. And the single most unique singer, songwriter and performer in the UK at that time, possibly even ever, released her greatest hits album.


To accompany “The Whole Story”, wacky songstress Dame Catherine of Bush released the brilliantly odd single “Experiment IV” alongside the even more brilliantly odder self-directed video, presumably also called “Experiment IV”. I did some Googling (bet you’ve never come across the sentence “I did some Binging”) as per the above disclaimer to find out whether the single was based on a true story or was just inspired by her singular and oddly brilliant brain. On what is possibly the first website ever created there is the quote

“one of the fans who played a dead body in the “X4” film made reference to two or three sources for the subject of the song and the film. (He didn’t say where he’d heard of these sources, but pretty clearly he’d learned of them from Kate during the filming.) One was a nightmare Kate herself had had. Another was a true story of a French scientist working with sonics who created a huge steam whistle, which actually did kill several people, including himself.”

which doesn’t really clear up anything, does it. Here is that website, itself a marvel of accessibility and thoughtful design, available at should you choose to expose yourself to it (but not in that sense):

I can’t find out anything about the story or who the French scientist was but if you know or it was you, leave a comment below.

Here’s the deal. I play the video and I write down what comes to mind as it unfolds, like the great MBMs and OBOs in the Guardian. This is how I choose to review music; because this is my blog, and not yours. Shall we?



00:00 Good Lord, it’s 4:43 long. In pop music terms this is “the whole Lord of the Rings extended cut trilogy played back to back” long.  

00:05 This is actor Richard Vernon, best remembered for playing memorable roles like “Man on Train” in  “A Hard Day’s Night”, The Beatles’ version of “Spiceworld”. He also played award-winning Norwegian fjord designer slash pun maker Slartibartfast in the BBC’s partial adaptation of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, written by notably tall Beatles fan Douglas Adams. Adams was of course half of a gestalt personality with Stephen Fry, who was the narrator of the Guide in the rancid, worthless and execrable 2005 adaptation of H2G2 and voice of the far more successful audiobook (the novel, not the actual Guide this time. Is that a first? Someone playing the part of the voice of a book and then later narrating the audiobook of the book about the book? I almost certainly can’t be bothered to find out). Fry is also well-known for “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” and in a moment, the young Prince Regent-performing whippersnapper himself will be adorning this same video with his shining presence. Ah. The circle of life is complete.

Vernon plays a character called “Professor Jerry Coe”. In the “Game of Thrones” forerunner “The Old Testament”, the walls of Jericho are destroyed by the sound from 49 trumpets (Biblical scienticians are going to tell me I’m wrong and it was seven trumpets but the text makes it clear: “The seven priests carrying seven trumpets went forward” (Joshua 6:13). I did maths not good but even I know that seven priests with seven trumpets equals 49 trumpets). Anyway, the point is that the walls were destroyed by a deadly sound.

00:10 Professor Coe enters a shop which we are later informed is called “Music for Pleasure”. Said fake music shop was apparently so realistic that passers-by would pop in to place a mail order for a crumhorn or organistrum, this being the days before the Internet. Now this begs the questions: exactly what would a fake musical instrument shop that looked fake look like? However it’s not a question that sustains the interest for long so let’s move on.

00:19 Professor Coe enters what looks like a changing room and pulls the curtains shut. He pushes the back wall of the changing room and it opens into what we presume is a military facility, or a very roomy and recently redecorated Victorian hospital. Several odd things are happening virtually at once:

  • Why does a music shop need a changing room?
  • Why was it night time when Professor Coe entered the music shop but bright daylight when he exited the back of the changing room?
  • And is that really Dawn French with the cheap “Papa Don’t Preach” bleach bottle blonde ‘do?

The answer to all of those questions is of course ‘yes’.

Yvie Oddly enough there’s a good reason that this looks suspiciously like a Victorian hospital. It’s because it’s a former hospital, designed at least in part by Florence Nightingale, built during the reign of Queen Victoria. Here’s a still from the BBC News channel of Queen Vicky greeting staff at the opening of said Royal Herbert Hospital in 1865:

00:29 French is playing a mysterious character known only as “Assistant 1” on IMDB. She wears the number “969” prominently displayed on her lab coat. I have some theories about what this could be a reference to:

  • The number 969 bus, which goes nowhere near the Royal Herbert
  • The Myanmarian “969 Movement”, a numerology-inspired peace/anti-Islam (delete as appropriate according to your worldview) movement
  • The year 969, which was the year that Judith of Hungary, Queen of Poland was born

Safe to say we haven’t got to the bottom of this mystery yet.

Coe and Assistant 1/Agent 969 are doing a weird thing where they are moving superfast but pretend to be walking slowly. Possibly they’re being pulled on skateboards out of shot.

00:44 Coe and Agent 969 enter a mixing studio called “Sonic Research Department” where they are greeted by “Assistant 2”, the young Hugh Laurie at the peak of his career. According to Kate

“We had to create a recording studio for the video, so tape machines and outboard gear were recruited from my recording studio and the mixing console was very kindly lent to us by Abbey Road Studios. It was the desk The Beatles had used…”

Another mysterious Beatles link! Assistant 2 is wearing 57 on his lab coat. The only reference I can find to 57 is “Passenger 57” starring Wesley Snipes and it’s probably not that.

01:01 First chorus! 

Onscreen now is “The General” played by British thespian Peter Vaughan who was in “Time Bandits” and “Zulu Dawn” (not to be confused with “Zombie Dawn”) but nothing much since then. “Heartbeat”, “Lovejoy”, that’s about it. He lip syncs the chorus’ lyrics in a far more convincing manner than Valentina or Charlie Hides: “and they told us / all they wanted / was a sound that could kill someone from a distance”. Tell you what, in terms of subject matter this is no “No Way No Way” by Vanilla.

01:16 An Oscar-worthy moment. The General tells the Professor and Assistant 1 what he wants for Christmas and the Professor is so outraged that he SMASHES his fist into the desk and then collapses into a chair, suffering from melodrama. It’s madness, I tell you, madness.

Did you know that in 1988, after Madness split up, four of the original members decided to continue making records under a new name. They held a competition on Radio 1 (this is before Radio 1 skewed their demographic towards listeners who weren’t old enough for “In The Night Garden”) to find a new name and do you know what they ultimately came up with? “The Madness”. Crazy, crazy nights.

01:29 Assistant 1 brings a tray full of tea and biscuits out to where the Professor is talking to three heavily pregnant women. I don’t just mean pregnant, these women are all between 50-60 weeks pregnant and look in some discomfort. The Professor ignores them and takes tea and biscuits for himself. The cad!

Returning to the opening of this essay, we talked there about how the possibility of using sounds as a weapon centred upon volume, amplitude, frequency and oscillation. Bush takes a different tack. She envisages a sound so terrifying, so dreadful, that it would stop one’s heart dead if one was to hear it, as the lyrics tell:

“From the painful cries of mothers / and the terrifying screams / to the sound of Education Secretary Michael Gove trying to explain that all schools should be reaching ‘above average’ status”

01:37 Now we’re in a padded cell, recording the anguished screams of a mad man (played by big brother Paddy Bush, for fans of celebrity siblings). Assistant 1 has toothache, probably caused by all the biscuits she had in the previous scene. If I could record toothache, I would. That would be a sound that could kill someone.

01:50 What the jiggins? It’s another chorus! It’s been literally nineteen words since the last chorus. Swizz!

01:55 Now we have someone strapped into a dentist’s chair but not in a good, Gazza/Euro ‘96 sort of way. I believe that this is Del Palmer, bass guitar funkateer for Kate’s band and a long time paramour of hers for some time. Assistant 2 carries out a menacing looking box with a slightly wonky wifi extender aerial.

Now I’m slightly puzzled, but we have at least identified another Hitchhiker’s reference. If the sound is the scary thing, then surely it doesn’t matter what the container/amplifier for said deadly sound looks like? Like, if you were in an on-going war situation, and there was a deadly sound killing all your chums, would you be looking for a) something painted a deathly black with a large speaker and excitingly non-specific but threatening contours or b) something nonentitical like a breadbin with a sort of English countryside brambles’n’blackbirds motif painted on the side to beat the everloving shit out of? They just haven’t thought it through.

And that reminds me of the Kill-O-Zap Gun:

The designer was clearly not instructed to beat about the bush. “Make it evil,” they’ve been told. “Make it totally clear that this gun has a right end and a wrong end. Make it totally clear to anyone standing at the wrong end that things are going badly for them. If that means sticking all sorts of spikes and prongs and blackened bits all over it then so be it. This is not a gun for hanging over the fireplace or sticking in the umbrella stand, this is a gun for going out and making people miserable with.”

02:14 Disaster! The sound is so terrifying that it’s only blown the bloody top off. The Victim looks suitably startled; B- for acting. Smoke billows out of the top of the stricken media centre, but wait-

02:17 A shape begins to form out of the smoke! It has blonde hair and a raggedy ill-fitting dress which to be fair could have described most pop stars in the 1980s of any gender, even Andy Taylor out of Duran Duran. The Professor and his two Assistants merely watch, as though somehow they are not surprised that a banshee that looks astonishingly like Kate Bush with blonde hair and a raggedy ill-fitting dress has burst out of the top of his buggered Microsoft Zune.

02:32 The Victim looks amazed at this ethereal spirit that has appeared before his eyes out of the top of the broken stereo, especially given how much it looks like his girlfriend. The apparition with the overdrawn lips blows him a kiss and then rips off her wig! It’s a bit like Sasha Velour’s rose petal wig reveal except instead of a bald head, this reveals a hideously angry phantasm in one passed for special effects in 1980s pop videos. The Professor, Assistant 1 and Assistant 2 look startled by this development, as though they hadn’t expected something violent to arise from a brief that read, “a sound that could kill someone”. Hmmm. Assistant 1 does some acting.

02:52 More acting. The violent windstorm that the banshee has whipped up breaks the glass into the control room and throws our three intrepid scienticians against the far wall. Curiously it doesn’t even budge the well-oiled outwards-swinging door which Assistant 2 pushes open with a single fingernail, allowing a fortunate egress from the devastation.

03:02 A great shot which foreshadows the one of Ripley and the Xenomorph face to face in Alien3. Interestingly, the Xenomorph in that shot wasn’t the female, so either a) the poster is somewhat presciently calling the male Xenomorph ‘bitch’, which wasn’t a widely used slur for male-identifying murderous Xenomorphs in thr future back then, or b) it’s calling Ripley the bitch. Given what that franchise has to say about the liminal state of motherhood, I know where my money is.

03:04 For reasons beyond exposition or my power to parse, Assistant 1 is covered under mountains of video tape (or possibly dark brown ribbon) which falls from the ceiling. The Professor has uncomfortable stitch.

03:23 The banshee, flying down the corridor having escaped from the sonic research lab thingy, makes a b(ansh)eeline for Assistant 2 and leaves him sort of awkward-looking and googly-eyed on the floor. It’s hard to say what has happened because that’s sort of what Hugh Laurie looks like all the time.

03:38 La Bush, smiling smugly, serves tea to the General and then stands there waiting for his next command. Close-up on 2: wait! The face changes to that of the banshee! This is followed by a montage of all the faces of her victims.

03:59 Again with the litter as a signifier of destruction, dystopia and slightly odd pop music.

04:10 Exterior shot of “Music for Pleasure”. White-coated lab techs litter the street like Spiced-up zombies litter Sheffield city centre. The camera pans out across some wasteland to a point where a flimsy corrugated iron fence has been erected around the scene and a wee small sign says “PROHIBITED”. That sign wouldn’t even keep out bad language and it’ll be covered in shit graffiti and bill posters in literally seconds. The van drives off, but stops to pick up one passenger. As they get into the van they turn to the camera and break the fourth wall. It’s the banshee, dressed as an English female singer/songwriter from the eighties! She puts a finger to her lips as if to say, “don’t tell anyone” but without need really, it’s just a video from the 80s Kate.

Actually it reminds of the very last scene of the “Thriller” video now that I think about it.

And there it ends, with the sonic malevolence let loose on an unsuspecting world. I think the world is probably safe; it’s the 1980s and as soon as she opens her mouth to sonic someone to death, some white cis straight man is bound to start talking over her.

What’s the verdict?

The last two issues have featured artists that I quite like releasing what can only really described as half-hearted dirges with questionable videos. But this is an artist that I quite like, and in fact in 1986 I was at the peak of my quite liking Kate Bush; “The Hounds of Love” and in particular “The Ninth Wave” is quite simply one of my favourite collections of music of all time, and for me nothing she has done since has come close to how magnificent they are.

I’ve never been fully on board with this idea of releasing a brand new track to go on a greatest hits album. I mean, what if the new music is released as a single and disappears straight down the great dumper of pop, ie it spends one week at number 57 and is never heard of again? But then, “The Whole Story” isn’t an ordinary greatest hits. Of 12 songs, this song was brand new; “Wuthering Heights” was essentially a remake of the original; “The Man with the Child in his Eyes” appears to be the album mix and not the single; and the singles “Hammer Horror”, “December will be Magic Again”, “There Goes a Tenner” and “Suspended in Gaffa” don’t appear at all. The Christmas single “December will be Magic Again” is actually a bonus track on the 12” of “Experiment IV”.

Whilst not at the same standard as – well, any of the other tracks on “The Whole Story” really – “Experiment IV” is actually “quite good”. The video is a bit bonkers, and it takes the lyrics of the song as literally as an Australian when asked to think up a name for a desert that is both great and sandy. The music is interesting and sounds unlike anything else, and, well, let’s just compare this single to everything else in the Top 100 on the day that it was released:

I mean, there are some bona fide classics (“Suburbia”, “Notorious” (yes it fucking is), “Anotherloverholenyohead”) but, Letitia Dean and Paul Medford? Don’t call us, we’ll call you. Also, who knew that Linda Lusardi had tried her hand at pop? A new entry at number 92, it went up one place the week after and that fortnight was the whole of her career in pop. 

And with good reason.

Let’s end with this wonderfully deadpan performance of “Experiment IV” and meditate on how quite good this single is.

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Neneh Cherry – ‘Heart’ (bar by bar review)

If Steps are pop royalty, and Earth, Wind & Fire are definitely pop royalty, what does that make Neneh Mariann Karlsson, better known to us YouTube Music gimps as Neneh Cherry?


Everyone can remember the first time that they heard “Buffalo Stance”, just like they can remember where they were when they heard JFK had been shot or Girls Aloud had split up. In November 1988 you’d find me in a semi-detached fixer-upper in Bolsover, making a hash of both the fixing and the upping. I was working as a joiner’s mate in Chesterfield when (I met you-ooo) it came on Radio 1 and I remember standing there, breathing in the artex fumes because health and safety hadn’t been invented yet, thinking that it was unlike anything else I’d heard before and wondering just who this person was. Turns out that if you were into music at that time, you’d probably come across this person before because at 24, Neneh Cherry was already a veteran.

The early standout on her LinkedIn page is her time with not-at-all provocatively named all-female punk band The Slits, famous for their cover version of “I Heard It Through the grapevine”, for being muses of bona fide rock god polaroid taker Anton Corbijn, but most notably for living and breathing girl power whilst the Spice Girls were still shitting their nappies. Here’s a 17 year old Neneh “chucking” out some “shapes” live onstage with The Slits:

This song is “Man Next Door”, released by The Slits as a single in 1980. It’s a cover version of a song by reggae legend John Holt. On their album “Mezzanine”, Massive Attack – former members of Bristolian sound system The Wild Bunch – also covered “Man Next Door”. If you check the sleeve notes for track 9 of Massive Attack’s “Blue Lines”, you’ll see that Neneh Cherry has both songwriting and programming credits, whilst a certain Booga Bear is the executive producer for the album. Booga Bear is of course Cameron McVey, also known as Mr Neneh Cherry. As part of the duo “Morgan-McVey” alongside photographer, film maker and not very convincing Lou Reed cover version singer Jamie J Morgan, he was partly responsible for a Stock, Aitken and Waterman monstrosity called “Looking Good Diving”. B-side to said travesty is called “Looking Good Diving with the Wild Bunch”:

Zip forward in time about 20 months, and “Looking Good Diving with the Wild Bunch” has bumped into Bomb The Bass’ Tim Simenon in a nightclub toilet and taken on a new form:

The circle of life is complete.

Cherry was predictably panned for going out in public whilst seven months pregnant, to say nothing of performing on Top of the Pops in mini skirt, bra and trainers at a time when society still thought of pregnant mothers as spunk microwaves rather than independent sentients beings in their own right. Throughout the promotion of “Raw Like Sushi” she was a proponent of the underwear as outerwear trend, long before Instagram made it A Thing again, although in fairness it was still quite a long time after Henry VIII had been making serving wenches faint at the sight of his enormous codpiece.


The last song we looked at was Earth, WInd & Fire’s “Magnetic” and let’s never talk of it again. According to The Rules [that were in place at the time when I hallucinated up this zany idea], that meant that the next song has to begin with “P” (because Earth, Wind and Fire has 16 characters and P is the 16th letter of the alphabet) whilst the song has to begin with H (because “Magnetic”).

Reader, I fucked up. 

I looked all over for a suitable song, even going so far as to compile my own database of artists to search rather than use the Internet because who doesn’t like compiling 17,000 row spreadsheets with advanced search functions on a Sunday morning in a heatwave. I couldn’t find one I was really into and was very close to doing Pet Shop Boys’ “Heart” when I realised that “Earth, WInd and Fire” actually has 14 characters because “Earth, Wind & Fire” spell it “Earth, Wind & Fire” and not “Earth, Wind and Fire”, this merely being the URL for their website, meaning that I should have been looking for an artist beginning with N. What can we learn from this?

That’s right. Proofreading is fundamental, hunty.

As soon as I started looking through the Ns Neneh Cherry jumped out, and as soon as I saw “Heart” my mind was made up. Everyone knows the the other four singles from “Raw Like Sushi” but this one for some reason was only released in Australia (where it reached #91) and the US (where it peaked at #73). What really caught my eye was the fact that it was directed by “Fight Club”, “Se7en” and “Alien3” director David Fincher. Nothing unusual there – Fincher has a long history of pop videos, including George Michael’s “Freedom ‘90”, Billy Idol’s “Cradle of Love” and Madonna’s “Vogue”. But having studied Fincher for my dissertation at uni I was surprised that I didn’t know either this single or video. 

So here’s the deal. I play the record and I write down what comes to mind as it unfolds, like the great MBMs and OBOs in the Guardian. This is how I choose to review music; because this is my newsletter, and not yours. Shall we?



00:00 Nine seconds over the medically and ecclesiastically provisioned three-minutes-and-thirty-seconds that pop songs are supposed to be. I can deal.

00:07 Actually the first seven seconds are just, well, acting? According to the “plot” someone called Claude is being invited to stay, where we know not, to watch the next act, although we don’t know who that is. Funnily enough “Seven Seconds” is the title of La Cherry’s biggest hit. The circle of life- wait, we’ve done that bit.

The music starts and it’s more “Kisses on the wind” than “Manchild”.

00:16 Someone who can only be described as swarthy is explaining to someone on the other end of the phone called “Daphne” that he’s going to be late home (“darling”) whilst being enthusiastically felt up by someone non-Daphne. I’ve read the lyrics and neither a Claude nor a Daphne feature in them. Fincher, ever the auteur, is taking a lot of liberties so far.

00:23 Oh my word. The young lady feeling up the chap on the phone, we discover, is called “Celeste”. We have a pop music video featuring Daphne & Celeste. Finch is both an auteur and a visionary.

00:36 Finally we get a proper view of Cherry as she is introduced by a talking mime artist and the vocals kick in. She explodes through a curtain from backstage – now we can deduce that she is the act that Claude was invited to stay and behold – and strides to the front of the stage looking highly insta-ready in bustier, cycling shorts and trainers. This is a look she doesn’t so much as own, but has full copyright on with the patent pending.

00:54 After a rather unsubtle metaphor for the male gaze, Cherry grabs a light bulb on a mic stand and sings into it. We’ve all mimed into a hairbrush, screwdriver or vibrator in our time so far be it from me to call her out for this unconvincing choice of prop. And seconds ago she was singing without a mic so I’m not sure what to make of this new turn of events. 

01:03 “Heart, heart, you can’t break my heart / heart, heart, you think you’re so hard”. The songwriters – Jack Conrad and Pamela Phillips – didn’t really push the rhyming envelope too hard there, did they? I’d never come across them before so I took the liberty of Googling their back catalogue for you, listeners. It includes such hits as:

  • “Heart”, by Eddie Fisher, featuring the lyrics: “You’ve gotta have heart / All you really need is heart / When the odds are sayin / You’ll never win / That’s when the grind should start”
  • “Heart”, by Reba McEntire: “Heart, where are you taking me / What will you make of me / Is this the real thing / And heart, could he be paradise / Cause in his eyes / Do I see love looking at me”

Right up there with “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star”, isn’t it. Did you know “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” had five verses? No-one knows anything after the first verse, just like “God Save The Queen” except without the colonialist history of invasion, occupation and racism.

01:22 A ventriloquist is seen beating the face of his dummy. Beating in a RuPaul’s Drag Race sense, as in, making up to be sickeningly good, sickeningly used in the sense here of… I’m sure you get it. Anyway he’s applying Benefit Hoola Glow to his dummy.

When they hear Cherry sing they both turn their heads… even though no one is operating the dummy. In another visionary move, Fincher has given us the character of Sid from S1 E9 of Buffy. 

01:47 Whatever else he’s doing, Fincher isn’t exactly lathering us with plot exposition. Cut to Generic 80s Woman sat at a table in the bar presumably watching Cherry. For reasons unbeknownst to us she has an old fashioned rotary phone at her table although I suppose in 1988 it wouldn’t have been old fashioned. The onscreen text says “[ Ring ]”. Cherry starts her trademark middle-eight rap, the caption [Ring]s again and Generic 80s Shoulderpads Woman answers it. She has noticeably excellent brows.

01:56 It’s just her stalker. He says — I noticed you were alone. because in the Fincherverse there are no speech marks.

02:00 *Adopts spooky Hannibal Lector voice* “… and done things with the light/mic stand.” Cherry and backing dancers are subjecting the light/mic stand to lewd and lascivious behaviour.

02:05 — But I’m in a crowded nightclub. — You’re still alone. The dialogue, whilst not quite at George Lucas levels, isn’t much better.

02:09 Google the lyrics at this point. I’m pretty sure that Cherry is not singing, “Chocolates, bananas, doughnuts and salami / Ain’t gonna fit cause you’re full of bologna” because in no universe does ‘salami’ and ‘bologna’ rhyme. It’s a load of baloney.

02:16 Generic 80s Powerdressing Shoulderpads Woman puts the phone down on her heavy breather but doesn’t hang up – just gently lays the receiver down by the phone. Probably because her arm is aching. However did we hold such things up to our heads for extended periods?

02:38 “I thought you were my friend / God, you’re so digital girl / You’re like one of those cabbage patch creatures”. which in terms of bad reads is right up there with “I know you’re talented at, you know, buying shoes, but are you talented at, you know, drag?”

02:39 A young woman breastfeeding a baby. I have no idea what’s going on here. The shots of her are interspersed with shots of Generic 80s Red Lip Powerdressing Shoulderpads Woman’s stalker, so possibly he is related to her and the baby in some way? Is that what we’re supposed to infer?

02:52 And now we’re back to shots on the guy being plagued by Celeste. He says, “Please Celeste, Stop it!” because apparently back in them days proofreading was not fundamental, at least for video captions. Meanwhile Cherry does her second pop rap of the song and we get the immortal lines, “Everybody knows you’re a phoney / You just want his alimony”. This last is a word that gives away the US songwriting credits, although it’s possible that Jack ‘n’ Pam just struggled for a word that rhymed with maintenance (shame they didn’t have Wordhippo back in the day, maybe they could have found more than two words to rhyme with ‘heart’).

At this point Cherry also sings, “You took my man and took his body / Strapped him to your bed just to have his baby”. Questions of consent and male rape aside, maybe the swarthy stalker guy is Cherry’s ex and the wholesome mother bottlefeeding the baby is the one who stole Cherry’s guy and trapped him in a loveless union that he tries to escape by initiating shenanigans with Generic 80s Blusher Red Lip Powerdressing Shoulderpads Woman. I am, it’s fair to say, and I presume at this point so are you, not really sure what’s happening.

03:17 Sid and his handler look on from the side as Cherry finishes her performance. I assume they’re on next, unless Sid thinks that Cherry is one of the Brotherhood of Seven and intends to kill her as he strives to break the curse and release himself from being trapped in the dummy’s body. All things seem possible in this video, except for coherence.

03:33 Curtains close, song ends. The applause is people thanking God that the video is over. There’s no post-credits coda so we’re left completely in the dark about, well, everything.

What’s the verdict?

I was a huge fan of Neneh Cherry. I was one of the suckers who bought all 23 different 12” versions of “Buffalo Stance”, I know all the words to both raps in “Manchild”, and I still think she’s making great music now:

This song, as an album filler on “Raw Like Sushi”, works perfectly well. However, it doesn’t work as a standalone single. The recycled country & western lyrics are repetitive and banal beyond belief and this video, which I’m assuming didn’t come cheap considering the director and the number of actors involved, tries to be a clever mini-drama and falls far, far short.

As confusing as “Magnetic” was, the video was kind of amusing. It was a gloriously bad high-concept failure but at least it had structure and a narrative. They didn’t make for the poor song but at least it was something. “Heart” simply lacks heart.

Earth Wind and Fire – ‘Magnetic’ (bar by bar review)

Everyone knows Earth, Wind and Fire, right? Everyone can sing along to “Boogie Wonderland” and “September”? And yet, you have all mysteriously forgotten about this track…


So, viewers; last time out we took a trip on the 4:15 pop train to Abbaville, a journey that had an unscheduled but mercifully brief stop in mediocre town before passing over melancholy bridge to arrive at our destination. The song we looked at was “Story of a Heart” by Ver Steps, which despite being actually half decent is still probably only 20th on the all-time list of Steps’ best singles, as scientifically calculated by yours truly by adding up all the songs from Steps’ discography on Wikipedia that weren’t as good as “Story of a Heart” and deducting that from the total number of singles. Science, see?

As per the rules, the plan was to use a formula to guide my choice of song. Not to put a straitjacket on the choice, but certainly to slap its knuckles with a ruler and make it sit up straight. And as per the rules [that were in place when I started writing these stupid reviews], the choice dictated to me was to select an artist beginning with E and a song title beginning with M.

I was so close to choosing En Vogue’s “My Lovin’”.

But in the end there’s nothing funny I can say about it. Partly because I can say nothing funny, I think the viewers have taken that as a given now, but mostly because “My Lovin’” is pretty much perfect. It’s a great song, sung by four talented women who sound so good that they make actual heavenly choirs of experienced, professional angels sound like The Pogues after a long Christmas Eve session on the rock’n’roll mouthwash. The production is perfect and the video is pure sass. Plus, I know the song like the back of my Cat’s head and I don’t have any new thoughts to think about it. So I bit my lip and made myself choose a song I had never heard before, because I thought it would be a good way to discover some new music.


Earth, Wind and Fire are, quite simply, pop royalty, which I appreciate is what I said about Steps last time out but hold on, let’s fire up Google Spreadsheets and take a look at the numbers.

They’ve sold over 90 million records and hoovered up six Grammys, four AMAs, five hall of fame entries and a RoSPA cycling proficiency badge, to say nothing of being sampled 704 times and covered 262 times according to the pleasingly obsessed music scienticians at

When bees employ hyperbole, which is not often because bees are not naturally gregarious by nature even when talking amongst other bees, they have been known to refer to a particularly girthsome and fecund stamen as ‘Earth, Wind and Fire’s knees’. Babies (human babies, not bee babies) are born knowing the lyrics to the choruses for “Boogie Wonderland” and “September”, and wouldn’t Jung be pleased to know that he was right about the collective unconscious (even if he didn’t realise our memory as a species was used for storing cheesy disco lyrics. But he never went to Pop Tarts on a Monday night and then had to get up for a 9am lecture on the tenth floor of the Arts Tower).

On the other hand, “Magnetic” I know fuck all about. 

Here’s the deal. I play the record and I write down what comes to mind as it unfolds, like the great MBMs and OBOs in the Guardian. This is how I choose to review music; because this is my blog, and not yours. Shall we?



00:00 Despite being born at a very early age the first full-length music video I can recall seeing was Duran Duran’s “Arena: An Absurd Notion” from 1984 and it’s very difficult to describe. Four pretty young boys plus Andy Taylor play a concert whilst an intergalactic criminal and inventor of a liquid energy superweapon attempts to destroy the band with dwarves on stilts and some uncompromisingly competitive roller skaters in lingerie. Or at least, that’s what I took away from “Arena” but I had hormones at the time. Anyway, the only tangential link between “Arena” and “Magnetic” is that they both contain scenes of pop stars “acting” and that’s how this video starts.

The video, which was released in 1983, is described as “neon-dystopia”. That’s shorthand for, “in 1983 we thought the future would look just like 1983 but with more litter”. Eyeshadow by Joan Miró and rock’n’roll frightwigs are the order of the day, and that’s just the policemen.

I notice that, disturbingly, the video comes in at 3:45 and we all know my feelings about pop songs that are anything other than the Chinese Government-mandated 3:30 long. 

00:13 It’s 1983 and “Beat It” is still fresh in the memories of, well, everyone on the planet but most prominently in the memory of whoever wrote this.

*Checks Wikipedia*

Martin Page. Never heard of him but apparently he was on Southampton Football Club’s books as a kid and, Wikipedia says, “spent some of his time listening to music and learning how to play his main instrument”. Probably due to Madonna videos being on heavy rotation on MTV at the time, I was the same. Did you know MTV used to play music videos? Wild. Wikipedia generously credits Page with writing EWF’s second greatest hits collection, which will presumably come as news to the band.

The point that I’m trundling towards at speeds resembling tectonic plate shift is that this is 1983, and dance music has to sound like rock music to get played in the US. The Era of Big Disco is Over. Now, every song has to have a tuneless solo on the cheapest kind of electric guitar played by an identikit Uncle Disgusting in pervtastic spandex.

Look, I’m not going to lie to you listeners, right now I’m in the middle of reading “I’m Not With The Band” by Sylvia Patterson, who was an editor at Smash Hits in the mid-80s (assuming any sort of supervisory role really existed there at that time (something I find quite unlikely (especially if she was busy drinking pop stars under the table at that time and assistant editor Neil Tennant was on his way to becoming one of the biggest pop stars on the planet))) and it’s possible that that publication and its highly specific lexicon is going to influence this review.

00:18 Don’t know why this part especially, but this part especially reminds me of ‘Batman & Robin’ (dir. Joel Schumacher, 1997). And here we see further proof of Dirk Gently’s theory of the interconnectedness of all things:

Those four funky divas playing prostitutes in what looks like a school performance of “Blade Runner”, as it was kindly described on YouTube? None other than En Vogue. The circle of life is complete.

00:20 More “Beat It” vibes as what looks like a middle age street gang with a wardrobe full of ASOS festival wear strides belligerently for reasons yet to be revealed through the litter- and fashion disaster-strewn streets of the near future.

00:25 Disaster prepping as outerwear. I always wear a gas mask when I’m going out on the pull if I don’t have time to do my make-up too: 

It’s called fashion Brenda, look it up.

00:34 The vocals start. It’s a call and response pattern with lead Earther? Winder? Firer? Maurice White singing the baritone and (presumably) Phillip Bailey taking the falsetto response. I don’t know if this technically counts as antiphony, which is the practice of liturgical call and response chanting, or if we’d just describe these as counterpoint vocals. A lot of soul and gospel music has its roots in the antiphon, so it’s entirely possible. There are points where the vocals overlap, but they’re still not strong enough to drown out that bloody guitar, which is not so much being ‘played’ as ‘tortured in contravention of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment’ which is a title so long and immemorable that there’s probably an unrealised Smiths b-side called exactly that.

A police vehicle enters the shot. It’s very similar to the armoured personnel carrier that will be featured in “Aliens” (dir. James Cameron, 1986). It’s not explicitly marked as the Police but they’re trying to run over unarmed black people so I think we can take it as read.

00:43 Holy shit we’ve finally got to the first chorus. We’re only 43 seconds in and the first half an hour of the video was taken up with the “Beat It” low budget tribute. If I was paying for this rather than watching on YouTube with ad blockers on I’d feel dangerously short-changed.

00:46 If you couldn’t buy any cocaine in the 80s, well first you weren’t trying very hard because it was fucking everywhere, and second it’s because most of it was consumed during the production of this video. The police are beating up the – well they’re not protesting or doing anything wrong (except for the guitarist, still), so let’s just call them “not-police” – with glow sticks that look like those dreadful solar powered garden lights on spikes from The Range. The police are beating up the not-police with Taiwanese garden tat.

00:55 That American TV staple, the headband on a white dude so uncool that it’s painful to watch, makes its first appearance. He and Maurice exchange nods whilst looking meaningfully at a poster of what looks like someone fisting a mushroom. It has some Japanese letters and a shit sci-fi font which says “Magnetic” and is meaningful.

On next week’s episode of Gardener’s World: “Fisting mushrooms for beginners”

01:05 Ah. The rich white MAGA crowd are all in some club called ‘Catacumbas’ to escape the pandemic of litter outside. These guys are, to quote the President of the Galaxy, so unhip it’s a wonder that their bums don’t drop off. The band are now inside, playing for the white folks. And for reasons unknown to the non-cocaine-snorting watchers of the video, some of the crowd seem to have brought a live snake to the nightclub.

I once got thrown out of a nightclub for not having my shirt tucked in. I don’t have an anecdote about taking a snake to a club and that’s the most pointless nightclub anecdote I have. May even be the last time I went to a nightclub and that was 1989.

01:30 A Big Brother head on a screen talks about “the 2051 games” and I’m not sure what to do with that.

01:45 Ah! Now we learn more. We’ve just seen some chap have what looks suspiciously like random electrical components glued to a toilet plunger strapped to his arm, whilst another hand pastes a banner saying “TONIGHT!” over the aforementioned “Magnetic” poster, because in 2051 they don’t have mobile phones or smart glasses or personal computers embedded on a chip in their eyeball, they have a wall plus paper and glue and the hope that someone will walk past the aforementioned combo and see it. Maybe “Magnetic” is some sort of Great American Disco Fight-Off.

01:51 In one sense I haven’t really understood what’s happening since 1987 when I left school. In another, more strictly relevant to the present discourse sort of way, I have no idea what’s happening in this video. The glowstick police are keeping crowds back behind a hastily arranged boxing ring? made from road barriers and fluorescent lights. Is it an underground fight thing? The first rule of Fight Club is, we don’t do this much Charlie when we make pop videos.

02:01 The two fighters are joined in the ring by what look now like pinball pins. I’m permabaffled. They start fighting, throwing huge arcing haymakers that aren’t so much telegraphed as painted on the wall of Creswell Crags during the last Ice Age. The rich white folks are watching the fight from inside the club. I’m not sure I can get through the whole video without doing a line myself. Is coke vegan?

02:20 Meanwhile the band are still playing inside. I say “still”; it’s literally a runthrough of the same several seconds of club interior and band playing footage as at 01:05. Perhaps it’s a metaphor beyond my wit to comprehend.

Or the effects of the Columbian Marching Powder.

02:50 One of the fighters has run out of the fight and is now running through – well I can’t tell if it’s a derelict building or just what affordable housing looks like in 1983’s idea of 2051. At first I thought they’d run out of the fight, but then I realise the fighter in the skirt/shorts/skort is still being filmed, so maybe this chase is part of the fight? Like some sort of weird Iron Man triathlon?

02:57 Some feeble synchronised pointing. Do better, guys.

“It’s fun to stay at the-“

03:20 One of the fighters is truly wailing on the other. But wait-

03:27 You know that bit in Gladiator where The Spaniard, the younger man in peak physical prowess, has wailed on the much older and slower fighter who has been specifically brought out of retirement to fight him because apparently that was fair in the Olden Days? We have the same scene here. The crowd give a wacky thumbs down, but instead of finishing him off, the pointlessly anonymous fighter still standing receives a knowing look from our Maurice and then pulls the other pointlessly anonymous fighter to his feet! Amazing!

I have no idea what’s going on.

03:42 Maurice, standing in a deserted alleyway staring at literally nothing, or possibly suffering with cataracts, literally fades out of existence just as the song does.


Well listeners, I stand by what I said. EWF are one of the most successful and enduring bands in history and the creators of some of the finest pop music imaginable. 

This song however is not amongst that number.

Line breaks

“It takes more than a turtleneck to make a chihuahua”
The author Scott Adams once wrote
And although you may say it sounds bourgeois
There’s wisdom to be found in this quote.

You can’t make an action film by adding a car chase.
And you can’t make a poem by adding some line breaks.

I mean, it isn’t literal, you have to interpret. Shame about all the dumbass racist comments.

Steps – ‘Story of a Heart’ (bar by bar review)

Up first in our frighteningly inconsistent series of music video reviews is Proper Pop Royalty in the form of Steps!


This is not going to come as much of a surprise because as regular listeners will know I’m something of a pop tart, but I fricking loved Steps V1.0. Well, not “5-6-7-8” quite so much because for a long time I thought that line dancing was one of those things that should have been consigned to the great pedal bin of life a long time ago. But first I watched the remake of Footloose and then I thought, “actually, it’s kind of cool?” and then I saw the way that Steps did it on the most recent tour and now I’m pretty much all turned round on the subject so at this point who knows.

But every other Steps single, and most especially the singles from the first two albums, are just about perfect as far as pop goes. So when Spotify pushed “Story of a Heart” at me (and having just recently watched the Steps Reunion thing on YouTube – such shade!) I decided I would make this my first regular review. And I decided I would do it in the manner of the great Guardian MBMs and OBOs, because this is my blog, and not yours.


Hello. Sometimes, life has a funny habit of folding back in on itself like a little origami ouroboros, and this is just such an occasion. When pop prestidigitateur and toy train troubler Pete Waterman decided to get involved in the Steps ‘project’, he stated that he wanted to recreate the sound of Abba (“on speed”, apparently). During the first incarnation of the band, the Stepsters would cover “Lay All Your Love On Me” for the Abbamania low cost schedule filler TV tribute show which you may remember for a revolutionary performance from Irish insomnia erasers Westlife, who started out their performance sitting on stools and then – get this – actually stood up to sing the last chorus. Amazing.

As part of this debacle, Faye, Claire, Lisa, H and Clive joined forces with some of pop’s biggest names (Cleopatra, Tina Cousins, B*Witched and Billie Piper) to sing an Abba tribute medley, the imaginatively titled “Thank Abba For The Music”, and let’s take a moment here to remember all those affected by Billie’s red jumpsuit.

And we’re back. So, what do we know about “Story of a Heart”? Well, apparently it was ‘penned’ by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson in 2009 for the Benny Andersson Band’s eponymous album (what an ego). From the original ‘Abba on speed’ mission statement, to singing their songs on the telly, Steps now have a song of their own (sort of) written by the creative seventies hair powerhouses behind Abba’s greatest hits. The circle of life is complete.

So, shall we take a look at the song in question? Otherwise there’s not really much point in us being here and judging by the subscriber numbers for the website, that’s a course of action you’ve already decided to take and no one can really blame you for it.

And here it is!


Steps! They back! BACK! Etc.


00:00 It’s a “One for Sorrow” piano opening! Hurrah! I must admit, I was a little nervous once I spotted that the single was a great deal longer than the advised 3:30 length that statistics have laid down for our guidance. Perhaps the fade is unnecessarily extended but I guess we’ll find out when we get there.

00:05 Wait, where did the piano go? Something isn’t quite right here. There’s a little mournful note there that subtly changes things.

00:10 Claire starts singing. Having seen the Steps Reunion programme recently I realise now what A Big Fucking Deal it is to have Claire singing lead and how many ructions that caused. That said; Claire is the best singer in the band. There’s a reason that David Beckham took all the set pieces, and it’s not that he won that privilege in a lottery.

00:46 NO! You can’t just go straight into a chorus from a piano opening like that. There has to be a bridge. You bring the strings in, maybe add some percussion, sing the bridge, and then go into the chorus. Everyone knows that. It’s not a stripped back, “One for Sorrow” chorus, either. The percussion comes in and it’s strangely leaden and plodding. Who produced this?

*checks Wikipedia*

The Alias?

*checks website*

Hmmm. The CV is stacked, but they’ve done a remix of Little Mix’s “Move”, and we all know that you don’t mess with the classics.

*presses play*

Oh dear.

00:51 The chorus seems to swoop up and down a bit, which if I was being kind I would say was in iambic hexameter but actually just sounds like a police car siren. The classic ABBA Plan B harmonies are there, though; the downtempo, introspective harmonies like you get on “The Winner Takes It All”, except this is less “winner takes it all” and more “eliminated two rounds before the final in a lip sync challenge with Alexis Michelle”.

01:05 I’m a bit distracted by Claire’s hair. I’m never quite sure whether the Morrissey quiff suits her, says the enby with hereditary male pattern baldness, although she absolutely owns it and looks completely badass wearing it, so more power to her. I’m just a diehard fan of the wavy lob and that’s the hill I choose to expire on.

01:18 The chorus ends very abruptly. You expect there to be another line there. At least it grabs your attention, which is more than you can say for the rest of the chorus, I’m afraid.

01:23 Faye sings the second chorus. Faye was always my favourite, back in the day – the blonde funky dreds were very rad, man.

02:00 Another chorus? The unwritten rules are quite clear for all to see. You can’t have a verse that’s shorter than the chorus. Everyone knows you just ran out of words, or it was getting close to lunch and you were desperate for an M&S ‘Super Green’ edamame and minted pea on chia and linseed bread sandwich. The only thing worse is just repeating the first verse with extra synths and percussion.

02:32 Take me to the bridge. Before the official video I wasn’t sure who was singing. I thought it was Claire and then maybe Lisa, because she hasn’t done a lead part yet.

02:53 World class product placement for some little HP mini photo printer gizmo thingy that’s probably already been discontinued.

02:54 Where’s the middle eight? Oh wow, these crazy Steps kids are serving up ‘took the rulebook and just threw it away’ realness here.

03:50 A capella harmonies! Take that, critics who said Steps can’t sing.

04:10 Song ends! Interestingly, the first version of the video that was released (before the official video came out) ended at about 3:32 and the rest was just the last dying embers of the fade. Two seconds over time, I can live with that. But this one comes in at 4:15, which in pop music terms is the equivalent of a Lord of the Ring extended edition marathon back-to-back viewing session. HEY I DON’T MAKE THE RULES.

What’s the verdict?

Well, when I started out writing this I’ll be honest and say I didn’t like it. I felt a bit short-changed when I realised I wasn’t going to get “One for Sorrow 2017”. However, the song is very Abba. It’s no stretch at all to imagine Bjorn and Benny strumming along while Tomas Brolin and Martin Dahlin sing along in matching shiny jumpsuits and unfashionable silk berets. It’s not just the structure or the harmonies or the cod-serious lyrics, it’s in every little guitar lick and chord progression – it’s in literally every single sound. It also uses the phrase “the back of a bus”, which is quite something in itself. It’s Steps’ “guilty feet” moment.

If you said to a decent songwriter, “hey, Steps are back and they’re all grown up now (not in a Daily Mail way), could you write us a slightly downtempo song with depth that takes a couple of listens to get into and sounds exactly like Steps but all grown up (not in a Daily Mail way) please?” this is exactly what you’d get back.

And that, it turns out, is No Bad Thing At All.

Honestly who would choose to review music like this

In which your author aims to explain how being obsessed with Smash Hits has resulted in you reading this blog post.

A trip down memory lane

I’ve been writing blogs since the Internet consisted of just two pages – a webcam pointing at a coffee pot, and the world’s first coffee pot porn site – and I’ve had many since.

I know no one really reads my blogs, but that’s not really why I write them. I write because I like writing, I realise, like Lester Bangs in Almost Famous but without the recreational domestic cleaning product substance abuse. I write about many things, from football tactics to gender politics, because I have many interests. But the one thing that I’ve always come back to throughout my life is music. I love listening to it, I love reading about it, and I love writing about it.

What’s Smash Hits got to do with it?

And it’s no stretch to say that music writing has shaped my own writing. When I was younger, Smash Hits was the first time that I really paid attention to the writing rather than the words. I know that music is a totem of kinship and rebellion for young people and for many of them, it’s the way that they find the tribe that shapes the rest of their lives. I found a similar subversion with Smash Hits but the medium was the writing, not the music.

At the hands of Neil Tennant’s team, words became weapons of mass amusement in ways that had never occurred to me before. Yes, they could just be used for straight up jokes, but understanding those jokes made you an insider and defined the outsiders. When Smash Hits asked Samantha “Sam” Fox whether it was true that she had applied to be the new drummer for The Housemartins, you knew that that was a joke; she replied, “No! Where do you hear all these silly rumours from?” Jason Donovan couldn’t foresee a situation where he would throw up in a kangaroo’s pouch; Hazell Dean had no knowledge of the length of the world’s longest parsnip; Mick Jones was upset at Big Audio Dynamite being called dinosaurs. When asked, which is never, I usually say that my writing is an amalgam of Douglas Adams (the absurdity), Adrian Mole (the pretentiousness) and Robert Smith (the melancholy). The truth is that without Neil Tennant and Ver Hits, I probably wouldn’t even be copying better writers.

MBMs and OBOs

So I was looking for a writing project – I’m always looking – and quickly my thoughts came round to music. I can always write something about music, but I wanted an angle and that’s when I came up with the Bar by Bar idea. If you read the sports sections of the Guardian, you’ll have seen either the Minute by Minute reports done for football matches or the Over by Over for cricket matches. These blogs literally follow the match minute-by-minute or over-by-over and describe what’s happening.

Good writers borrow but great writers steal, so I stole that idea and wrote precisely one review just like that – reviewing the song bar by bar, with my thoughts, observations, a great deal of tangential waffle and awful lot of snark. I really liked the idea and no one read it, which are always the twin mission statements for any of my projects. I tried to force some randomness into the choice of song with a terribly convoluted scheme involving numerology (I know, me, overthinking things, who would have thought) but looking back a) it was stupid and b) it made me give up writing them, so I came up with an even more radical idea.

Writing to please myself.

An outbreak of Christmas Spirit

The prompt we were given in our Creative Writing group was “Christmas”. I am a notorious grinch. I had recently watched the first X-Files movie, the good one. After that, the plot fell into place with about five minutes’ work.

01:27, Friday 25th November

If my life was a book, she reflected, this would be where people put it down.

It was the small hours of Friday. Her flatmates had been back from the pub for a couple of hours. They’d had a Deliveroo, played an unnecessarily raucous game of KFC Twister, and one of them had fallen asleep in the communal living room to the night’s third showing of ‘Shaun of the Dead’ on ITV2, which she could hear clearly through the graphene walls of the flat. While they had been out drinking and socialising, she had been hard at work on a paper entitled A Study of the Obligate Intracellular Organisms of Bayt Rahal I which had to be submitted later that Friday. If my book had any lingering readers obliquely determined to get to the end, she thought, I think I just killed them with boredom. But at least I can hide their bodies with the dates I bored to death too. 

Glancing at the laptop, which showed that the results of her experiment would be available 28 minutes later, she left her office to get a drink and turn off the living room TV. As she pulled shut the curtains onto the busy main road, she could see the usual combination of policemen eating kebabs, kebab vendors breaking up fights and Amazon drivers updating the system to show that their delivery window would still be 3:15pm-6:15pm. The midnight showing of Shaun of the Dead was entering the final act and if she didn’t take the necessary precautions, the TV would still be on when ITV2 started the 2am showing of Shaun of the Dead.

Office, she thought self-mockingly. Of the three rooms which constituted her flat, this was the middle-sized one and served as office, bedroom, yoga room, walk-in closet (well, it was more a step round closet; lacking the space for either wardrobe or drawers, she had a complex system of piles serving a similar purpose and although she didn’t know it they exactly matched the constellation of Eradinus) and occasional boudoir for dating app selfies. The largest room was the living room, dining room, kitchen, utility room, present wrapping room and airing cupboard; the smallest room was the combined toilet/shower/bicycle storage. 

That was the first thing she would address, once she was able to afford something else in London, somewhere else to store her bike. She had lost count of the number of times she’d forgotten to take it out before turning the shower on. At least it was not likely to be her home for much longer. In an attempt to find ways to make more rent out of the building and having exhausted all of the ways to add walls to make more flats, she had caught her landlord measuring the heights of the ceiling in each room and suspected that he was planning to insert new floors to divide the existing flats in two horizontally.

She turned her attention back to Bayt Rahal I which, with its larger sibling Bayt Rahal II, was a Rumuruti (R) type chondrite with an 80% dusty matrix and oxygen isotope composition containing carbon compounds and amino acids. It had been the subject of her study for several months now and she deeply loathed her housemate Dan for referring to it as a space rock. It was actually a very rare meteorite, found on an archaeological dig at the village of Bayt Rahal (for which it was named), some 11 miles or so north-east of the Palestinian city Hebron. 

There is a very firm belief in the scientific meteorite study population (don’t call it a rock solid belief, they won’t find it funny) that when The Meteoritical Society had devised the taxonomy for meteor naming, they had got to around 3:57pm on a Friday and realised that they still had a bunch of meteors left to name and they all seemed to have very individual chemical compositions, so they just stuck them in the same group and called it “the rarest group”. These were the type R chondrites. It was her very firm belief that Bayt Rahal I was in fact the single most unique space rock ever to give a camel a nasty scare and as soon as her laptop had finished the analysis, she’d have proof and just at that moment a loud ping! sent her running back to it. She returned a moment later, realising that it was just the microwave and her hot chocolate was done.

01:52, Friday 25th November

25 minutes later, she was proven right. Bayt Rahal I contained organic compounds, as she suspected, that were not present in Bayt Rahal II. Because it was much smaller, no one had ever thought to test her space rock, assuming it contained exactly the same material. She had quietly suspected something different. To be quite clear, she had found obligate intracellular bacterial pathogens and without the organic eukaryotic host they absolutely required to survive and replicate, they were dormant. As her oily-haired housemate Dan had feared she would, she’d found her virulent space plague but at least it was still asleep so that was something. This was the fifth time that she’d run these tests, because she absolutely knew that her results would be peer-reviewed, dissected, analysed, questioned and subjected to rigorous reinterpretation. Not because the science was complex or the results were controversial, but because she was a woman and they would have done the same if she’d tried to tell them that their shit stinks. 

She was modelling and running simulations about what would happen if this particular bacteria ever interacted with human biology. As an astroepidemiologist this was her job, or at least her area of study. She was a contractor to CNEOS, the Center for Near Earth Object Studies, and whilst for the most part they looked at what would happen if a near-earth object struck the planet, her role was to look at what might happen in the unlikely event that one of them carried a potentially communicable pathogen. She considered the role a sinecure because if such an impact did happen, a case of the space shits would be the absolute least of our problems. But nevertheless she carried out the role with diligence and humour in the face of good-natured ribbing from her colleagues and barely tolerable smallmindedness from the wanky arsehole that she shared a flat with, because she was just plain interested in space plagues and also it was better than packing Internet orders for a living.

04:08, Friday 25th November

She’d left her poor laptop modelling the same simulation just one more time and fallen asleep still clothed, after carefully tripping over the pile of clothes that represented the star Alpha Eridani. Over a spartanly calorific snack of peanut butter on plain chocolate HobNobs she reviewed the data and found exactly what she’d found every time before. Her unnamed space plague would likely alter brain chemistry, in a profound way but for a short period of time, likely with a significant (but again temporary) degradation of activity in the following, slightly longer recovery period. The regions of the brain affected would be the temporo-parietal junction and the ventral striatum. She felt vaguely like she should know the significance of that but for the moment it jiggled ominously just out of reach of her tired mind, like a kitten playing with a thing-on-a-string toy.

15:16, Friday 25th November

By about quarter past three she had written the majority of the paper’s prose. The data was in spreadsheets, included in the appendices, and she was providing the story to illustrate the data, to provide a cohesive narrative and provide context for the dates, the readings, the measurements, the hypotheses, and at this point in a near continuously-awake period of 20-plus hours, quite possibly the password for her Prime account. 

The outline to her paper was this. Around 2,030 years ago two rocks had struck the desert at 31 degrees, 40 minutes and 9 seconds North, 35 degrees 10 minutes and 40 seconds East, which corresponds now to an area called Bayt Rahal, to the south-west of Jerusalem. They were almost certainly part of a much larger meteorite, as yet undiscovered. The larger was the size of a pine cone, the smaller the size of an intimidating conker. They were found on an archaeological dig in the mid-1920s and could be dated to quite a specific time period using the latest carbon-14 dating methods due to the organic material found around them in the same strata of earth. Unusually but usefully, she was able to cross-reference the likely date of impact with contemporaneous secondary written sources, which had spoken of a bright star which travelled across the sky some time in late winter or early spring.

With geologists in the archaeological party unable to recognise them, they were for years shipped worldwide around various museums, laboratories and universities before ending up at Cambridge where they obtained gainful occupation as matching paperweights by the Regius Professor of Chronology at St. Cedd’s College, who guarded them with leonine ferocity. When eventually they were wrestled from his control by someone who happened to walk past his office and see the door open, the larger stone (which was discovered second, hence Bayt Rahal II) was discovered to be quite uninterestingly rare. 

Bayt Rahal I had been tested by a bactereoastronomist that she knew briefly from her time at Imperial College London. He had been a PhD trying desperately to cop off with undergrads whilst she had been an undergrad trying not to get hit on by PhD students. What was his name? Something vaguely Italian, like an M&S pasta. Fulci? Luke Fulci? Anyway, watered down pasta boy had extensively analysed the larger stone and said that might contain evidence of microorganisms, but ultimately decided it didn’t. She, suspecting the smaller stone had a secret that the larger had not, obtained permission to experiment on the smaller stone. Lukewarm spaghetti had disappeared before they could lock professional horns. Probably run off with some freshman geology student who’d get dumped when she turned 22. She knew the type.

Thumbing F7 once more to highlight any typos she’d missed the previous seventeen times she’d done it, she uploaded her paper and the accompanying data to the content management system and waited attentively but horizontally and mostly asleep for confirmation that the submission had been successful.

23:42, Friday 25th November

Shortly before midnight she awoke with a start. In the interests of strict and academic accuracy and avoiding a cliché, she awoke with an imaginatively biological and voluminously graphic expletive upon realising the time. If she had made an error, if she had not met the 5pm cut-off for submissions, well she had definitely missed it in some style and by some distance. There was at least no automated response in her inbox telling her that the submission had been rejected, although there were 32 reminders that it was Black Friday. That was something, and she tried not to be distracted by a highly discounted soup maker that she’d had her eye on.

She logged into her account and was somewhat worried to see that there was no new submission from her. It wasn’t pending, it wasn’t in the queue, it wasn’t rejected, and it wasn’t published. It just wasn’t. She could see from her own browsing history that she hadn’t dreamed it, that she had visited the submissions portal. She gazed absentmindedly at the procession of 24-hour undertakers, parcel delivery vans and armoured police cars passing her office window for several minutes and then just for the variety, threw an angry orange at a movie poster of Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis. It hit the bald prisoner on the cheek and landed with a self-satisfied plop on the Epsilon Eridani pile.

The best thing to do was upload it again and explain that she’d uploaded it once and the system must have doc-blocked her. She had the proof in her browser history, and really there was nothing else she could do. She started the process again, filled in the mandatory fields, then went to upload her document and found that was gone too. 

It just wasn’t in the folder anymore. It wasn’t visible in the file selector box so she opened up file explorer and navigated to the folder directly. It was still conspicuously absent. Wondering if she’d accidentally trashed it, she opened the trash folder and it wasn’t in there. The trash was empty, in fact, which was so unusual as to be suspicious. She opened up Word, and selected her paper from the list of recently opened files, but Word was having none of that and told her so quite frankly. She hadn’t backed it up (yet, she was sure she would have done eventually) because she was uploading it to the submissions system anyway, which was like backing it up but for people who are content with flimsy rationalities.

The academic part of her brain kicked in and formed a hypothesis: her document had been stolen. It had been literally hacked out of her laptop, and out of the submissions system. Despite the outlandish nature of the claim she felt sure that William of Ockham himself would have approved of the hypothesis, which, yeah, good work brain, was probably true and all that but not really germain to the problem at hand so let’s see if we can focus a little more, shall we? She knew she was ranting internally, which she knew that was a sign of panic and anxiety, and she quieted herself as best she could, which was not much.

There was a trick she had learned as a postgrad, when she was struggling for money and felt sure that her elderly laptop was a prototype, as in probably the first laptop ever made, and she had to reboot it more often than she had to press the spacebar. Navigating swiftly through file explorer, she clicked on the AppData, Roaming, Microsoft and Word subfolders. And there it was; an autosaved version of her document. It was timestamped at literally a minute or two before she uploaded it. She copied it to her Documents folder, opened and checked it, and then resumed the submissions process. As the upload status bar changed to read 37%, there was a knock at the door.

She was torn. She wanted to answer, but she could safely assume that it wasn’t for her on the grounds that she didn’t really have any friends, and she told no one where she lived. She hadn’t ordered food, so unless it was the police conducting their daily house-to-house inquiries regarding some local crime (or possibly finding out if it was safe to commit one) the caller was probably a friend of that weapons-grade dildo living across the hall. She ignored the knock twice more, intuited with a sigh that no one else was home and therefore not likely to answer the door, and got up to answer at the fifth knock. They were at least persistent and she appreciated that in a person, even an annoying late night person.

“Good evening ma’am, may we come in?” they said after they had pushed past her. There were two of them. Similar dark suits, raincoats, hair in a style that was two years out of date. She suspected that they knew who they were.

“Amazon Customer Service Representatives, Miss. This is Service Representative Cheadle, I’m Service Representative Hulme. We’re from Principle Place.” 

So not from any old fulfilment centre, not even from a development centre; they were from Head Office. Whatever it was, it was serious. They flashed their ID at her and she saw both had purple badges, meaning that they’d been at Amazon for 15 to 20 years. Purple badges were the idealogues, the fanatics; they could not be reasoned with, could not be bribed, could not be bought off with a £50 gift card. Whatever problem Head Office had detected, if they had sent these two out, it was a BFD. The only people above the Purple Badges were the Silver Badges, and they were the untouchables, the Sea Org of the Amazon Corporate Structure. The Purple Badges were bad enough. Even the Metropolitan Police Firearms Squad were scared of the Purple Badges, and they’ll shoot anyone for anything.

“Can I help you?” she acted, not really feeling the calmness that she thought she was projecting but actually wasn’t.

“Our colleagues have identified a problem with your Prime account, miss. As we were in the area we thought we’d call in. Laptop through here is it?” Hulme monotoned at her, pushing past her in the narrow hall. She started after him, but Cheadle grabbed her arm.

“This won’t take a second, miss.”

“My laptop?” she queried. “How would you-” Her brain, smarter than most people’s, joined the dots quickly. The constant parade of delivery vans, the seemingly 24-hour delivery relay of different drivers. It wasn’t part of the service, it was part of an operation and for whatever reason, that operation had been to spy on her. Hulme returned, her laptop under her arm.

“I think we need the IT guys to take a look at it,” he deadpanned. “Why don’t you come with us to the Service Desk.” She looked at Cheadlie pleadingly.

“All part of being Earth’s most customer centric company, miss. Don’t worry about it,” he said, worryingly

All fight was gone. She was a single woman, alone at home late at night, an academic, and a former under-13s table tennis international for England. She briefly tried to envision a scene where she grabbed her laptop, knocked Hulme out with it and then made it through the door before Cheadle could catch her, but she didn’t think her backhand was up to it. Without any choice in the matter she allowed herself to be escorted to their car, a black Chelsea tractor with a hybrid engine. Behind it was one of Amazon’s new all-electric vans, capable of carrying up to 18 order pickers armed with tape guns and 30 fully loaded pee bottles.

The pollution in the night air seemed to revivify her. There was one chance, she thought, which would either see her free or killed or hit by an Uber Eats delivery cyclist. She started inhaling in wheezy, rapid breaths. She’d never had a panic attack but felt that under the circumstances not an awful lot of improvisation would be called for and she was right. Through the perspex screen separating front from back she could see Cheadle and Hulme exchanging worried glances. An intercom clicked into life and in an 8-bit voice Cheadle told her not to worry and they’d give her some fresh air. The aircon kicked in but she ignored it and pressed her face to the window, like a hammy zombie actor. More worried looks, then the glass snagged at her face as the window came down. She leaned back, eyes closed, and allowed her breathing to return to normal. Stage one was complete.

After several minutes, they reached the former Elephant and Castle roundabout. In its time the roundabout had been one of the most clinically efficient killers that the human mind had ever devised. Wave after wave of graphic designers on mountain bikes had thrown themselves into the centrifugal maelstrom of London buses and perished through starvation as they sought to find a gap to exit the roundabout, their bodies found propped upright between buses, endlessly circling the roundabout as the ironic stickers peeled off their Macbooks. As the car eventually edged onto the roundabout she literally jumped into action.

She twisted in her seat and used the handle above the door to hoist herself bodily through the window. She was petite and lithe and managed it with all the grace of a retired footballer on Strictly Come Dancing, but at least she made it. She dropped to the floor, slamming her shoulder hard on the tarmac, and rolled out of the way with no time to spare as a Routemaster bus came up towards her, stopping inches from the car door she’d manually ejected herself from. Suddenly the most unearthly noise sprang forth, an unholy orchestra of bus horns, shouting taxi drivers, braking lorries and cursing cyclists. 

And then the moment she’d prayed for as one cyclist failed to pay attention for a single femtosecond. He crashed into the taxi in front of him. The taxi driver got out to remonstrate and was then himself hit by the phalanx of cyclists who swerved to avoid the first cyclist. In seconds, it was as though someone had taken a giant scythe to the peloton. It had taken Cheadle, in the passenger seat, only three or four seconds to comprehend what had happened, but already he was unable to move. The problem was the Routemaster on the car’s left, which was so close to the car door that Cheadle could only open it five or six inches. He screamed at the bus driver, who lazily gave him the finger and went back to picking his nose with it. Cheadle turned and raged at Hulme, but there was no recourse for the car. In seconds, the quick-thinking academic had transformed SE1 into the getaway scene from The Italian Job.

01:12, Saturday 26th November

Although she didn’t have her laptop and that was a major issue in terms of meeting her submission deadline, well that and not being able to time travel, she reckoned she’d done really well to get away from them. They knew where she lived and although she’d managed to get away and had wandered for a while she wasn’t really clear where she ought to head. She had her phone with her, they hadn’t thought to check her for that. With her phone she had her Oyster card, her bank card… and the app that operated the door to her office building. At least that had 24-hour security, CCTV, snack dispensers and a lot of offices she could hide in until her line manager turned up which would be on Monday morning but no plan was going to be perfect in her situation. Thank God they had missed her phone. It might literally save her life.

Of course, Cheadle and Hulme had not missed her phone at all. They had deliberately allowed her to keep it. When the police turned up at the incident they immediately recognised the Amazon Tactical Customer Services Vehicle, and left several injured cyclists under a Routemaster in order to escort the Customer Service Reps over mangled bikes and away from the disaster zone. As they pulled into a disabled parking bay outside an office building Cheadle reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a Kindle Fire HD 10 Plus, swiping away the lockscreen ads for Candy Crush Prime Minister’s Questions Saga.

“Has she got the Amazon app installed?” Hulme asked. Cheadle was frantically flicking up the screen, his fingers a blur as he flicked upwards one screen at a time because the poorly designed scroll bar was too thin to grab. “Well?”

“Give me a minute… yes! Yes, she’s got the app installed. One minute while I bring up her SKU.” The Service Rep dipped into her account screen to find her unique identifier.

“Okay. Now get the SLA up. Has she agreed to the Terms and Conditions?”

“Yes, she has!”

“Good. What about cookies, did she accept them?” Cheadle scrolled down the form.

“Umm, session cookies… flash cookies… first-party cookies – here we are.”

“‘Precise geolocation’ cookies?”

“Yep – looks like she accepted all cookies without even opening the explanatory pop-up.” Cheadle’s fingers flashed around the screen and in seconds he’d brought up the order tracking screen. Clicking on the map, it quickly narrowed her location to a quiet road in a small industrial complex a mile away. When the screen refreshed, the dot on the map had barely moved.

“She’s on foot.”

“Let’s go get her.” Hulme smiled at his partner. “When will people learn to read the small print about the cookies they allow to be installed on their devices?”

They both laughed.

01:46, Saturday 26th November

They waited for her further up the street. From her order address book they saw that she’d had parcels delivered to a CNEOS address on the same street and correctly assumed that she was heading towards the office.

“Doesn’t look like she’s got her phone in her hand,” Hulme said. “Start the wipe.”

As she reached the front door she took her phone out and from muscle memory waved it lazily near the NFC pad to the right of the great, sliding glass doors. Nothing happened, and continued to not happen through several subsequent attempts. She did not notice the black electric 4×4 roll up behind her slowly, lights off, practically silent. As she turned the phone to look at her screen it finished the factory reset that Cheadle had initiated. It waited patiently for her log-in, the way a naughty kitten waits expectantly for a treat she doesn’t deserve but knows she will get anyway.

It is a condition of the human mind that the more one needs to remember a password the less able one is to recall it. Papers have been written about the phenomenon, but not interesting ones and we will not discuss them further. Suffice it to say that it was the fact that she momentarily allowed herself to think more about the boring papers than the actual password that makes them relevant to this point in the action, and this pointless pause granted the two service reps the distraction they needed to emerge from the vehicle and walk slowly up behind her. She did not hear them, but when she looked up she could see their reflections behind her in the glass door. Her revolutionary spirit all spent, her head sagged.

“Would you like to speak to our supervisor, miss?”

02:31, Saturday 26th November

It seemed to take longer than expected, and after half an hour she realised that they were not heading for Head Office at all. She recognised Rotherhithe Tunnel as they went through it and then Canary Wharf, which disappeared to her right as they took a sharp left onto Burdett Road. Eventually they turned onto a large industrial estate, which she guessed was somewhere near West Ham. The car pulled up outside a large Amazon fulfilment centre and her heart, having already sank some time ago, found a new, much lower place. Two burly sortation operatives escorted her through a succession of identical industrial minimalist corridors until she was shown into what she presumed passed for an office rather than a corridor as it had only one entrance. Two hands on her shoulders persuaded her to sit. She was left alone.

Sensing that it was a tactic meant purely to intimidate her, she congratulated them mentally on how well it worked. She turned her head slowly and through a window behind her she saw two men having a heated discussion. A third man walked over, silencing the two arguing men who obviously recognised a superior. He, much more calmly, issued instructions and the two shouty bois walked away, chastised. She dawdled mentally on the observation that all three men were unnaturally bald, their pates reflecting the unpleasant strip lighting, before it struck her. She’d seen it in a documentary about the Gulf War. To curry favour with their leader, Saddam Hussein’s toadying lackeys would grow a moustache and style their hair in the same genocidist chic that he preferred. She saw the same thing here – these men were not naturally bald, but had literally shaved their skulls in deference to Emperor Bezos. She gave up her tactic of being merely intimidated and went for wildly disturbed.

The older man entered the room. He had a purple ID badge.

“Good evening, miss-”

“What do you want from me?” she demanded ineffectively.

“I’m going to explain why you’re here, if that’s okay with you?”

“Well – yes, actually.” She was confused, but then she realised that she’d arrived at the scene where the bad guy, sure that he cannot escape, takes James Bond through a detailed PowerPoint presentation with summative assessment and downloadable PDF takeaway detailing all of the plans that 007 needs to foil before the final act of the film can take place. She was horrified. “Are you going to give me a PowerPoint?”

“Oh – err – no?” He was surprised. Sometimes they demanded to know what was happening, regularly they demanded to be let go, but this was the first time somebody had requested a set of succinct bullet points assisted by crisp clip art and meaningful infographics. He gave it a moment’s thought. It wasn’t actually a bad idea. “Alexa, remind me to put together a PowerPoint explaining the onboarding programme for high priority applicants.”

“Remind you to audition for La Traviata at Dunstable Grove Theatre three Tuesdays from now – sure!” came back the synthesised acknowledgement. He shook his head. “I think it’s my accent,” he explained to her without a trace of accent. She didn’t care.

“Are you going to tie me to a table and start an extremely slow laser moving towards me?” she demanded and at this point it was hard to tell whether she, he or Alexa was more confused.

“No… but I could get you a coffee if you like?”

“I know what you want, buster,” she pronounced with bravado. “You want to get me a warm drink to calm me down so I can sit and listen to whatever it is you have to say. It’s not going to work!”

“You could have a warm drink and pace around anxiously if that would help?”

“No! Let’s just get it over with. I’m not sitting on that sofa either, I bet it expands until it swallows you.” Finally he got the reference and for the rest of the night, he would have Live and Let Die as an earworm. At least it wasn’t the execrable Guns & Roses cover version.

“Miss…”, he scanned down the paperwork but couldn’t immediately locate her name. “You’ve been working on identifying a virus-”

“It’s a bacteria, you tool!”

“- my mistake, I apologise.” She rolled her eyes so hard, so quickly, that her visual cortex could not keep up and for a moment she thought the room had flipped upside down. “Your work; I’m afraid it has to be discontinued.”

“Why?” she demanded! with such ferocity that even the past participle needed an exclamation mark.

“I’m trying to explain that to you, but it’s awfully hard when you keep interrupting, to say nothing of being awfully rude.” As a piece of psychology it was a work of genius. He had detected her lower upper-middle-class accent and estimated that some importance would have been placed on civility during her upbringing. Therefore, being accused of being rude, even to a kidnapper, would be instantly, infinitely, ignominious. It’s the sort of thing they teach you in Sociopathic Capitalist 101, just as a change after spending nine months learning about trickle-down economics.

“You are here,” he smoothed, “because I want to explain to you why your work has to stop. I’m actually going to fill in the background that you don’t know, because we’ve done all this work already, and suppressed it forever. Would you like to hear about it?”

“And then what? What happens after?”

“You’re an incredibly bright young lady, Miss, er-”. More paper shuffling. “We can use people like you here at Amazon.” Yes, it was an unusual way to get a job offer but it was still better than being contacted by a recruiter via LinkedIn messaging.

“I’m listening.”

“You’re familiar of course with the work of Clark, Parkinson and Stephenson?” He did not wait for her assent. “In a 1977 paper they discussed Chinese records which they claimed detailed an unusual astronomical event that occurred in early spring, 5 BCE. It’s not a new story. European scholars had been discussing the idea since the early 18th century.”

“I know this,” she interjected, “I read Cullen’s dismissal of that work. I found it while I was looking for primary sources for Bayt Rahal I and II.”

“Quite right too. Standard text in the field. And you know what they were looking for, of course. The Star of Bethlehem. The problem is finding the Star in reliable Middle East primary sources. Many scholars start with the Gospel of Matthew, but the problem with that is that we can’t even guarantee that it’s a secondary source. As you know, I’m sure, Matthew was written around 80-90 CE, so hardly a reliable record for something that happened nigh on a century before. The unknown scribe who compiled Matthew would have to be at least a hundred to be an eyewitness at a time when the life expectancy was somewhat less than four decades. So, serious study starts with the scholars in the Orient who are not concerned with fanciful notions of returning messiahs riding an ass.”

“That’s what I did. There are barely any extant works by these scholars. Plenty of sources indicate that they existed, because other scholars reference them, but very few of them are left. Imagine what it would be like to have them,” she dreamed wistfully.

“We have them,” he said simply.

“What? How?”

“We’re Amazon, my dear, we have more money than God. So anyway, we tracked down all of these sources and, well, just bought them. All of them. Hugely advanced, for their time, and enough of them that we were really able to pinpoint and triangulate both the date of the sighting of the Star of Bethlehem, and its trajectory, to an astonishing degree of accuracy given the scientific methods of the time. Honestly. Simply unbelievable.” Actually, she could quite believe it, thank you very much.

“So you’re telling me that the Star of Bethlehem was real?”

“You’d know better than me, my dear, you’ve had a chunk of it in your front room for months.” He let it sink in. This was his favourite part. It was like de-brainwashing a cultist, breaking down all her strongly-held beliefs so that you can rebuild them to your own needs. That was real power, and it showed in his half-smile. If the Amazon senior management programme contract did not require mandatory eunuchization, it probably would have showed there too.

“Bayt Bahal I and II are the only two fragments of the original meteor left that we haven’t managed to get into our possession. We’ve had people looking for them for some time. We despatched a customer service representative to Cambridge, disguised as a student, in order to track the two fragments down. Enrolled him on Professor Regius’ course in the hope of being invited into his rooms for tutoring. Terrible, what the senior students did to him, just terrible.” She raised an interested eyebrow despite herself. “Crumpets, you see,” he said, simply. “Hazing ritual during Freshers’ week. Forced him to stuff hot, buttered crumpets into his anus until he agreed to join the Young Conservatives. Poor boy never recovered. Had to have his whole derrière amputated. Terrible. Anyway, we eventually tracked them down. The stones, that is. Managed to wrest the bigger stone, with no little difficulty, but we were able to make the previous owner an offer that he was in no position to refuse.”

“You had him killed?”

“No, Miss…”, he licked his finger and turned a page in his folder, scanning the page for a moment before giving up. “I’m sorry. No, we gave him a job. We tried to get yours too. Broke into your apartment to retrieve it. We thought we were too late, that it had been broken into by a competitor, so we simply left.” She blushed sideways. It always looked like it had been broken into, she simply didn’t have the time for housework, and inclination less. “So we monitored all your electronic communications. That’s when we discovered the paper, and had to act.”

“My paper? But that was on the private network, for submissions! How did you get to it?”

“The server is on AWS, of course. We read it. We read everything that everyone uploads to AWS, everywhere, all the time. Every piece of it. Never know when something is going to come in useful!” He had an air of jocularity, like your grandad explaining that he never throws away those odd bits of metal with two holes for screws and a flange, even though no one knows what they are, what they are called, how retired men come across them in such quantities, or why they choose to keep them in a tin in the shed.

“You’re after the rock?”

“To begin with we were. But then we realised it was far more serious. We read your paper. Excellent work, quite excellent. Typo on page 27. ‘Mellifluous’ has two Ls. Otherwise, excellent. You had of course identified the bacteria, and a good thing for us that you were only interested in the bacteria and not the effects of the changes on the brain chemistry. Yes, very lucky for us. Means we can keep it all under wraps.”

She had not forgotten her earlier panic at being accosted, abducted, causing injury to several dozen cyclists, causing a traffic jam in the centre of London, and then being abducted a second time before she’d even really managed to get away from the first abduction, and was now bridling at having her spelling corrected. She demanded to know why they wanted to keep her conclusions away from the public.

“I demand to know why you want to keep my conclusions away from the public!”

“Returning to the story of the Star of Bethlehem. We used primary sources to track down the date, and trajectory across the sky. April, early April, 5 BCE. The date tentatively believed by scholars to be the birthdate of Jesus, although we have been able to confirm it for ourselves. Amazon has the sign-in sheet from the inn, you know, we found it on sale from a collector of illegal antiquities. They checked in on April 2nd, 5 BCE, and requested an economy room. The Star meanwhile is merrily making its way overhead, completely oblivious to what is happening underneath in the way that you would expect a star to be. It crashes to ground a few miles south of Bethlehem, as you know, and immediately people start acting joyful. Later commentators simply attributed to the birth of Our Lord. Do you know who finally put it all together?”

“Who put what together?”

“Your friend Luke Fulci, of course. Ex-boyfriend, I believe.”

“He was never my boyfriend!” she bellowed. “I never said that!” He tapped her file.

“Actually you did. You called him that at your friend’s apartment and dear old Alexa recorded it, as she records everything else. Seemingly can’t reply to a straight question, but you hear and record everything, don’t you Alexa?”

“It was in 1927, to the tune of Three Blind Mice,” Alexa trilled. “Would you like me to sing it for you?”

“Anyway-”, he said, pausing to side-eye the flummoxing hardware, “anyway, he worked it out. Surprised you didn’t, you had all the clues. The temporo-parietal junction, a marvellous feat of biological engineering, concerns itself with empathy and the enhancement of social relationships, amongst many other things. The ventral striatum is primarily concerned with the requirement of, and receipt of, gift and reward, especially in pair-bonded organisms. Empathy, enhancement of social relationships, giving and receiving of gifts especially in close relationships… any of this ringing any bells, would you say? Suggestive of anything, perhaps?” She did not want, could not bring herself, to answer although the picture was suddenly coming into distressingly clear focus.

“It was all quite a coincidence, really. Your bacteria excites both of these areas of the brain, but for some reason it seems to have a much more pronounced effect in conjunction with certain environmental factors – colder temperatures, shorter daylight hours, increased prevalence of common cold in the genpop, and so on, and so forth.” He waved a dismissive hand, as though this were all elementary knowledge. “We wanted to track it down, reproduce it. Patent it, most importantly, which is why we couldn’t let your rock float around, nor could we let your paper get published. Can’t have you telling every Tom, Dick and Harry with a high school chemistry set how to reproduce it in his kitchen, don’t you see? And it was your friend Luke who put it all together, which is why we had to offer him a job.”

“I’m sorry…. Put what together exactly?”

“Oh I’m so sorry, I thought you’d worked it out. Your bacteria, existing in the general population during the middle of winter, actively drives people to buy gifts for each other and by doing so increases the amount of pleasure chemicals in the brain both upon buying and receiving gifts. Quite a stroke of luck that, coming so close to Christmas. People will go quite mad, buying gifts for people they don’t like, overspending to huge excess, and they don’t understand why they’re driven to do it. All brain chemistry, nothing more. And when the fever breaks, they’re left with that empty feeling, which is why you feel low after Christmas. And how do people break that feeling? Sale shopping!” he exclaimed breezily. 

“Of course, that’s the real secret of Amazon’s wealth. Yes, we’re able to capitalise on all the gifts, but the buying and selling of gaudy baubles is merely a happy byproduct of the real moneyspinner. Loose change, in comparison. I’m sure you’ve heard retailers complaining that it’s really only the Christmas period that supports them for the whole year. It’s not just retailers though, most national economies only survive by profiting from the Christmas period. And I’m sure you’ve detected that every year, Christmas seems to come round earlier. Have you worked it out yet?”

“Yes,” she said very slowly. “You’re releasing the bacteria into the population, just a little earlier every year, to maximise the sales potential of Christmas.”


“It’s the governments who are paying you to do it. They’re all in on it.”

“Brava!” he applauded. “Oh, you’re going to be such a valuable asset to us. Such a quick mind! Yes, exactly that. In summary then: the Spirit of Christmas is real, and wholly owned by Amazon LLC and subsidiaries. The Spirit of Christmas is in fact an extraterrestrial biological entity, reproduced annually by us and introduced into the general public as a means to kick-start the pointless Christmas buying panic. Oh, that’s such a fun phrase!” He said it again in a vaguely German accent, like a poundshop Peter Sellars in Dr. Strangelove. “Extraterrestrial biological entity. Just like The X-Files!”

“And what’s the vector? How do you introduce it to the public?”

“Oh, that’s my favourite part! As you have worked out, the bacteria needs touch for transmission. It needs an inert material, preferably of organic origin, on which it can reside. We needed to make sure that it was something that would be touched repeatedly for person to person transmission.” She groaned.

“Christmas cards,” she said simply.

“Of course! What other purpose do they serve? Lace the paper with Christmas spirit, stock them high in the shops from September, and let nature take its course. Wonderful!”

In the end, it was all so obvious and she wallowed in despondency at it. He left her like that for several minutes. She didn’t even notice he was still in the room until he spoke again.

“And now my dear, we must discuss your future employment with us! It’s the best way to ensure your continued silence on the matter.”

“I’ll sign an NDA with a contract, that’s standard. But an NDA won’t work forever. Sometime, someone somewhere will leak it.

“Yes, we’d already had that thought of that. We don’t use old-fashioned methods like that any more. No, we’ll give you an induction.” This last was filled with menace and while he let her digest it, he spoke into an intercom on the desk, requesting whoever answered to send up the shift manager. “You’ll work here, in the order fulfilment section. You’ll be set barely-possible targets, giving you only a few seconds to collect each item from a shelf. You’ll have no breaks, no rest. Your mind will focus on nothing but reading and checking long and incomprehensible stock numbers, for 10 hours a day. The effect is quite startling. Very quickly, the brain is reduced to mush, the will collapses, and you simply become an automaton. You won’t even remember who you were before. You’ll be as the Golem, an artificial being fashioned from a human but stripped of humanity, to serve at the will of our shareholders.”

There was a knock at the door.

“Ah, good. That will be the shift manager. He’ll be the one delivering your induction.”

He opened the door and a sallow youth entered, his gait jagged and anxious. His pale skin, waxy and yellow, reflected the strip lights and was taut across the forehead and cheekbones through malnutrition and strenuous over-exercise. His dank hair lay in greasy, matted strands. She could hear him endlessly repeating stock numbers under his breath, which was rancid, like a nervous twitch. His browning teeth were rotted to mere stumps showing the dark pulp inside. If there was a human spirit still inside him somewhere, it was waiting to die.

“Wonderful! One of our best employees. In just six months he’s gone from inductee, just like you, to being shift manager. A very loyal and committed colleague indeed. You two know each other, I think.”

The nametag read simply, “Fulci, Luke”.

Being a satire on what the meaning of Christmas has been reduced to, and inspired by the thought that maybe the Spirit of Christmas is an actual communicable disease, one that can be exploited by late stage capitalism.

On the perils of being a cat owner whilst working from home for extended periods

For once in your life, I really wish you would behave
And whatever it is that I can’t see, I wish you would stop doing
Please try to remember, I’m not your bloody slave.

Regarding your behaviour, I try to be pragmatic
But whatever it is that I can hear, please stop chewing
For the love of all that is good and holy, I really wish you would behave.

Your presence at the window is disturbing all the blue tits
I imagine they are scared by the amount that you are drooling
But I can’t keep hiding bodies for you, I’m not your bloody slave.

You know that no-one on this Teams call is amused by all your antics?
That your stairs don’t reach the attic is what they’re all concluding
I’m supposed to be working! I really wish you would behave.

You’ll come off second best if you take on quantum mechanics
Your impressions of Schrodinger’s Cat is not at all amusing
Principally I’m uncertain that you know I’m not your bloody slave.

I demand that you stay within the laws of thermodynamics
Although even Newton couldn’t calculate all the energy you’re consuming
I’m begging you for the last time, I really wish you would behave
Except… we both know it won’t be the last time. I am just your bloody slave.

Hey look! It’s a villanelle! No, not the charmingly unhinged and stylishly psychotic assassin from Luke Jennings’ books, but a style of 17th century poem marked by a nineteen-line structure with two oft-repeated refrains. If it looks familiar, it’s because you remember Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” or WH Auden’s “If I could tell you”, which is a villanelle turned into a pop song by The Communards.

Elves, dwarves and trolls

There’s a ring that can think
And a map drawn with ink
That needs a very particular moon
To see the unreadable runes

Describing a hollow mountain
Where a talking dragon
(with a rather English grandiloquence)
Sleeps away the years on a dwarf-king’s inheritance

A magician lost a fight with an orchard
Four smol boys outran ghosts riding horses
A scruffy hiker hired a host of dead soldiers 
And a frog feasting on a finger fell fatally into the fires

But apparently your suspension of disbelief falls under attack
When asked to accept that an elf can be black;
And if feels like your whole world is falling apart
When a black female dwarf is given a speaking part.

Being a comment in the reaction in certain quarters to Amazon Prime Video’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power”.

For the record, I bloody love it. Galadriel is the best character on TV. I love that we’re getting to see the real Galadriel and not just the lofty supermodel from the Jackson movies.

It’s okay to just wear “clothes”

If you want to wear a dress today, go ahead.

Maybe wear it over jeans
Or with socks and Doctor Martens
On top of tracksuit bottoms
All your favourite thrift shop bargains
Because it’s okay to just wear “clothes”.

And if you want to, wear a suit.

Dress it up with a smart white shirt
Sex it up with a black silk camisole
Wear a threadbare vintage polo neck
That you love with all your heart and soul
(even though it makes you look like French philosophers of old)
Because it’s okay to just wear “clothes”.

Anyone can wear a pair of five-inch stilettos.

It’s not like there’s a theory test
All you need is a pair of feet
Strong calves,
Surprisingly good balance,
And some plasters for your heels.
But they’re a fearless fashion statement
(Even when you wear them with white socks)
And regardless of your gender
There’s quite no doubt they rock.
With jeans
On queens
Fully-fashioned black seamed stockings
There’s nothing
That you can’t take on 
If you can master heels.


The snides and sneers from the grayly stale
Those readers of the Daily Mail
Who call us ‘snowflakes’ but then concede
The end of civilisation it may be 
And all because 
They saw a man
In patent five-inch heels.

Because clothes aren’t designed to fit genders
They’re designed to fit bodies
And we all have one of those.
And there’s nothing wrong
With wearing what you want
It’s okay to just wear “clothes”.

Just about the queerest poem I’ve written… and yet also, not.

The Bug Squad

For the most part, those who were left had been driven towards the sea. There were some villages and even the occasional small town in rural locations that had not been overrun, but they were in isolated places. Many of the population not killed in the first wave had fled to the south coast with the intention of trying to get to mainland Europe (some had even tried swimming the channel, with disastrous results). A few thousands had escaped via the Welsh coast amidst rumours of places offering sanctuary in southern Ireland but for those sheltering in the south-eastern counties, there was no chance of getting to Ireland. Even for the army large parts of the interior of mainland Britain were practically no go areas.

What remained of Porter’s regiment were deployed in Brighton and Hove. The fighting around both Shoreham Harbour and Brighton Marina, two of the few remaining available disembarkation points for small boats on the south coast, had been fierce. The Pavilion had been used as a temporary shelter for refugees but attacks on it had intensified and in the last, probably a hundred people had died. Instead, the regiment had been setting up a series of smaller safe houses amongst the coastal towns nearby and were escorting small groups of refugees along the coast from safe house to safe house, often at night, as they tried to inch their way towards escape.

Porter and Minkowski were not directly escorting refugees but providing sniper cover along the seafront. They’d been effective against small sorties when there were only three or four attackers, but when larger groups attacked the snipers quickly realised it was far more prudent simply to act as spotters and then lay low, not draw attention. Porter was in a residential block on King’s Road, whilst Minkowski was on the top floor of the Holiday Inn a couple of hundred metres along the seafront.

Porter and Minkowski were half of the self-proclaimed original Bug Squad. They were at school together in March 2017 when the British Government triggered Article 50. A year later, as the rioting started, they met Djalili and Vernon at Aston University and the four became close friends. Djalili’s sister was killed in one of the first serious incidents of violence between Leavers and Remainers in 2019, when it seemed like the whole country had lost their mind. When the Brexit Troubles escalated and the University cancelled all courses so they could fortify the building, part of the so-called ‘War on Experts’, the four young men decided to enlist hoping that they could play some small part in restoring peace to the riven nation.

The nicknames were earned during their first tour of duty in Stoke-on-Trent, a Leaver stronghold. Large parts of the city centre were barricaded and became Whites Only areas. The Bug Squad were part of a larger group, providing sniper cover as ground troops fought fierce gun battles with Leavers. When they realised the Army had snipers in elevated positions, the Leavers started using RPGs to bring tall buildings down. Twice Minkowski crawled out a collapsed building. Vernon called him indestructible; Djalili laughed, yeah, like a cockroach, and the nickname stuck despite Minkowski’s many protestations. Minkowski, the human cockroach. 

During the same skirmish Porter saw what was happening and changed his approach. If you’re under sniper fire, he reasoned, you’re going to look up. So, he took to finding LUPs below the sightline, under rubble and in bomb craters, lying on his belly in the dirt. MInkowski, trying to deflect the good natured banter directed at him, likened Porter to a worm, and that stuck too. It was only a matter of time for the other two and Djalili, who could climb up and along anything, was soon christened the Spider. Vernon proved harder to find a nickname for but eventually they settled on Ant, just because it was a shortened version of his first name, Anthony.

Porter’s scope was trained, as it had been for almost two days, on his old friend the Cockroach’s hideout. 

There had been no movement for nearly three days, since the last attack. There had been fierce hand-to-hand fighting along the road, right up to the door of the tower. From Porter’s position he could not see if it had been breached. There had been no word or sign of life since the skirmish ended and the whole company was under strict orders to hold positions and maintain radio silence except for reporting an attack, and that had to be a short burst transmission. The attackers seemed to have a way of detecting radio waves. 

Djalili the Spider died on their second tour. Even prior to the Troubles, many of the disillusioned and impoverished poor in the former mining towns and pit villages to the north and east of Sheffield had been British National Party supporters. The rise of Ukip just lent their snarling racism a veneer of fake respectability. As a dark skinned Muslim soldier he was always going to be singled out by Leavers, and an improvised landmine took out the insufficiently-armoured Land Rover he was in. He and three others were vapourised. 

On the fourth day since the attack, having seen only one small contact during that time, Porter thought he could discern movement in Minkowski’s hideout. He wasn’t sure, but he had no one to talk to or check with. He had tried to steel himself repeatedly in case of bad news and rationalise what he saw: it’s just a curtain blowing in the breeze, it’s just one of the few feral cats that had not been rounded up for food. He looked round his own hideout, checking that the door was still bolted and secured as he did every few minutes. The air was stale and the dust caught the sunlight through slits in the boards over the windows. If you watched it for a while it seemed like the air was shimmering, as the dust particles danced in the air. In the first few days of the posting it had unnerved Porter a few times. It often seemed like something was moving, just out of his peripheral vision, the way an insect scuttles across the floor, and eventually he corrected “shimmering” to “slithering”. It was now nine days since he had seen another person face to face. His supplies were dwindling and he was almost out of water, but he was supposed to stay holed up for another five days. His ammunition was good, though. There had not been as much fighting as recent weeks. Maybe they were beating the attackers back? 

He took one small sip of water from the canteen and resolved that would be his last for the day. He dare not risk the tap water, if it was even running. He stretched, yawning silently. Rubbing his eyes, he lifted his weapon and set the scope against his face, fine-tuning the focus for his tired eyes and hoping against all sense that he was not the last surviving member of The Bug Squad. 

Vernon was one of the first Army personnel to be killed by the attackers. Porter, Minkowski, Vernon and three others were patrolling in an APC on the western outskirts of Sheffield when a call came to say there was a situation, some sort of disturbance, in a remote post in the Dark Peak and Command wanted eyes on. Local police said there had been fighting but they were very vague. There were definitely people missing though, presumed killed by Leavers. It was late one Saturday night, probably the first hour of Sunday, just one week after Djalili died. Command wanted eyes on and Minkowski said they would do it. 

Porter saw the ships first and he distinctly remembered thinking what a mess they looked. Later, he would laugh at the weird non sequitur of his own reaction. They were not the sleek flying weapons of Star Wars or the colossal floating cities of Star Trek. They reminded him of badly maintained, elderly trawlers and the further thought struck him: it looks like a refugee convoy. He was so struck by how ugly they were it took him precious seconds to even register that these were not human craft. 

Minkowski reacted quicker. He threw the vehicle into a U-turn and killed the lights before heading back down the road. Veering onto a muddy track, Minkowski brought the APC to a stop behind some trees. Silently, and with efficiency brought about by relying thoughtlessly on their training, they disembarked. They checked their equipment and then at a sign from Minkowski they tabbed, double time, the mile or so back to the landing site. 

At twelve days into his fourteen day post, and 36 hours since his water ran out, Porter became convinced someone in the Holiday Inn was alive. When the curtains moved, they didn’t move in parallel, as he thought they would if the wind was blowing them. He thought he saw a shape moving. He never saw lights, but Minkowski was too good, too professional, to be caught out like that. He was the best of The Bug Squad. The bravest, the most intelligent, a natural leader. If anyone could survive on their own for fourteen days it would be Minkowski, not Porter. He thought about trying the tap water again, but had heard all the stories about Leavers poisoning the supply. He almost licked his lips looking at the tap, but didn’t have the saliva. A minor breeze came in through a broken window and the air slithered again. Porter went back to his scope.

The attackers were milling around the ships as the six men crouched behind a rocky outcrop. Minkowski and Porter had infrared binoculars and watched in silence, the rest watched through scopes on their guns.This was not how the films made it look. There were no sleek robots in regimented rows, no phalanx of muscular and heavily-armed troops. What they saw was a rabble, a chaos of what Porter would later describe in his report as oversized insects. They did not quite look like earth insects, but somehow he just knew they were insects of a type. They tumbled out of the ships, some flying out, some climbing over others to get out. For a moment he thought they were not fighting, but they were not. They were massing around human bodies, naked human bodies. For minutes it seemed the soldiers held their breath, trying to stay composed, not panic.

On the thirteenth day Porter resolved to sneak over to the Holiday Inn and find Minkowski. He would wait til dusk. It was not safe enough to go out at night alone. At dusk, he could use the long shadows to mask his movements, whereas in the gloom of night the attackers would have the advantage. And besides, he only had a few hundred metres to go. He checked his water canteen again but still found no water. This was coming up to his second day with no water – or was it his third, or fourth, he couldn’t be sure – and he knew that he was at serious risk. It had rained, not much more than drizzle, for an hour that morning. Although he found a cup to set outside, he collected nothing except some a thin sheen of moisture which he tried to lick. The cup was covered in dust and all he licked up was a sticky dust solution which started him coughing, a hacking cough that he had to dampen by holding a pillow over his face. Dusk, he thought. Four more hours, then I’m making a run for the Holiday Inn. I’ll hole up with Minkowski, and then in the pre-dawn we’ll make our way back to base. In four more hours his world would stop being confined to a point between crosshairs.

They took turns sharing the binoculars in near silence. Each man tried to be professional and treat it like they would any potential enemy incursion, but there was nothing in basic training that prepared them for this. Minkowski watched them, fascinated, for six or seven minutes. After each man had had a chance to assess what they were facing, Minkowski lowered his binoculars and held a whispered conference. Minkowski wanted to send back an immediate sitrep, but Vernon wanted to sneak closer and get a better look inside the largest ship, which had opened its doors but nothing had come out. The creatures just seemed to be milling around it in haphazard manner and Vernon argued that it was safe to get closer. The other five were set against it, but at the last minute Minkowski relented. He would call in an interim report and when Vernon returned, he would call in again. Spreading out along the ridge, they trained their sights on the ships to give Vernon cover.

As the others covered Vernon, Minkowski watched the creatures. Whilst they looked like insects, it was more accurate to say they looked like several insects, like some mad doctor had sewn together pieces from many insects to make one. Some had wings like a fly but the mandibles of a beetle. Some had the spider-like legs, but only four of them, and the antennae of a grasshopper. Others had the body of a slug with a row of pathetic, underdeveloped legs sticking out of each flank as if a slug and a centipede had tried to occupy the same space at once. In the nightmarish palette of the infrared binoculars, every creature was dark but tinged with a sickening green. In size they ranged from the equivalent of an alsatian at one end to at least the size of an elephant. A couple of millipede-like creatures were easily twenty metres long.

Porter had failed to take into account how long it would take him to get out of the bolthole he’d sealed himself into, an error which was compounded by the need to clamber down the rubble in the staircase in silence. Half of the building had been taken out by some explosion, the half facing inland. Like something took a bit out of it, Porter grimaced. He looked out at the street. It was now darker than he would have liked and that worried him, but there was nothing he could do. He spent ten minutes surveilling the vista at street level and saw no movement anywhere, so he eased through a broken window. It felt good to be outside, to breathe different air. To be no longer confined.

Minkowski watched Vernon scuttle quickly to a small copse due north of their original position. They’d approached the craft from the east and could only see the largest ship’s port side. Vernon was right, of course, and Minkowski knew that Vernon knew he knew that; there was obviously something important inside it and the first question after completing the sitrep would be, what’s inside? Scanning forwards along Vernon’s trajectory, Minkowski could see another rock formation that he could take cover behind. That would give him good cover. All Vernon had to do was make it the 50 or 60 metres across flat, open ground. It might have been dark but there was no cover, not even vegetation, and Vernon could not risk a sprint. Any of the creatures could have seen him had he risked it. Instead, he would have to crawl the distance. It was risky, but it was all there was.

Relying on training, Porter covered the ground quickly. He dodged from the ruins of buildings to the wreckages of vehicles, at one point disturbing a host of flies that had settled on the partially-burned corpse of a young woman in the back of a car. Nothing else moved at the noise and the flies quickly overcame their annoyance at being disturbed. Porter sprinted the last few metres; now he was in front of the Holiday Inn. With dismay, he realised that the revolving door was gone and the other doors were wide open.

Vernon made the long, squirming crawl towards the rock formation easily and without incident. Don’t get cocky, Minkowski mentally admonished him. Just get into position and call it in. He continued to watch his friend through binoculars as the others kept their sights trained on the creatures, waiting for the radio to hiss into life. Eventually Vernon seemed to find a good LUP, the majority of his body hidden behind the rocks. Minkowski saw him lie his rifle down in front of him and pick up the binoculars. Soon, they would know.

Porter watched the hotel entrance intently. There was no movement, so he scuttled up the steps and into the foyer. Although there were more human bodies, there were also a fair few of the large insect carcasses too. He’d not seen many of  this type before. They had massive compound eyes, like a fly, on either side of the head of something akin to a stag beetle the size of a shopping trolley. He hadn’t expected resistance, and he encountered none. The stairs were at the back of the foyer. It was fourteen floors to Minkowski’s position, but they were relatively free of debris and he saw the bodies of neither humans nor attackers. That encouraged Porter. Maybe the fighting hadn’t spread inside the building. Maybe Minkowski was alive after all? There was a good chance that Porter would get a bollocking for breaking cover and leaving his post, but it was worth it. It would be worth it if his friend was alive.

“It looks empty,” The radio hissed at Minkowski. He asked for confirmation and after a moment it came. “There’s nothing inside it at any rate. No creatures, no people, no vehicle, no… wait. There are… there’s something on the walls.” Minkowski needed to know, but Vernon complained that it was very dark and he needed a minute. There were markings on the wall. “No, not markings… they’re all rectangular. About the size of a TV. I can see down inside it and it’s just a room. I don’t get it. Give me a minute.” 

The ship was around a hundred metres long, maybe a little more but certainly double the length of most of the others. It was vaguely rectangular although it tapered down slightly to what he assumed was the front, if he was looking in the back. At the rear the ship was around 30 metres wide, but the opening was only five or six metres wide. Inside the entrance the walls were straight and went back as far as he could see. It struck him how much more ordered the inside looked when compared to the vehicle’s exterior. Whilst the exterior seemed to be covered with boxes and channels and pipes and thick cable trunking, the floor of the interior looked to be smooth. He could discern smaller square shapes on the floor when he zoomed in, but to his mind they looked like tiles. Some sort of floor covering. The rectangles on the wall were much more pronounced, in fact they protruded out from the wall by an inch or two, it seemed. It looked like there was a small panel to the side of each one. Row after row and column after column they went back into the belly of the ship, looking not alien but vaguely, strangely, familiar. He concentrated hard on the pattern, feeling sure that it reminded him of something. Something that he had seen recently. He heard the radio crackle and knew Minkowski was talking, but he wasn’t paying attention. And then just as Minkowski hissed his name again, Vernon realised what it reminded him of. It was something he’d seen recently. Something he’d seen a week ago, in fact. He snatched up the radio.

“It looks like a morgue inside, Minkowski,” he replied calmly. “It looks like a giant, flying morgue.”

It took Porter longer than he expected to climb 14 floors. He’d barely eaten and not drunk at all in the last few days and felt weaker than he realised. As he arrived at the top floor he almost called out for his friend, but caught himself just in time. Quietly, very quietly, he began a slow reconnaissance of each of the sea view rooms of the top floor.

There was nothing and no one immediately visible. It was almost dark, and what little remained of the sunset was not shining on the seafront rooms. The gloom was oppressive and Porter’s joy at no longer being confined was evaporating quickly. Had he swapped one shadowy hole for another? Just as his spirits were sinking he thought he heard something from another room, the one he’d checked first. He crept down the corridor towards it and as he passed the middle room his world went black.

“What do you mean, ‘a morgue’?” Minkowski growled.

“I’m just telling you what I see. Rows and rows and rows of what look like small doors set into the wall, both sides, from floor to ceiling, as far as I can see.”

“Anything else? Can you see-” Minkowski was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder.

“Something’s up, boss,” whispered Rooihemp, the Afrikaner radio operator. “I think they’re on the move.”

Something was happening. There were a number of creatures with long antennae who had moved to the edge of the landing area and were looked out. Their antennae, previously laid back over their bodies, now stood upright. Were they preparing to move out or something else?

“What do you want me to do, boss?” the radio crackled. The creatures snapped quickly, looking straight at Vernon’s position. “It looks like they’re up to something… shit, what’s going on here…”

Minkowski understood immediately. He grabbed the radio and snapped the switch to off. They’d been so quiet, he was quite sure that they hadn’t been heard but somehow, God knows how, the creatures could detect the radio transmission. Through his binoculars he could see Vernon shouting silently into his radio and looking over at them. The creatures were moving towards his position and it was clear they knew where he was. The flying creatures were upon him quickly and Vernon barely had time to drop the radio and get off a shot before they were on him. Minkowski watched intently as they descended upon him.

“Boss! We should–” Minkowski silenced him with a gesture.

“No. It would give our position away. And we have to get away to make a report.” He went back to watching.

*     *     *

Porter groaned as he came round, his head spinning. His eyes were having trouble adjusting to the dark and everything seemed foggy, but after a few minutes there was a tiny improvement. He tried to rub his eyes but realised, with slowly rising panic, that he couldn’t move his arms. A low level buzzing – no, not buzzing, his ears were as bad as his eyes – a quiet hissing made him worry that he wasn’t alone. He held his breath, and the hissing stopped quickly. After a moment, it was replaced by a quiet, arrhythmical clicking, like the sound of a dog’s claws on a tiled floor. The clicking approached him, but he couldn’t see well enough to work out what was there. It stopped, and Porter strained to hear, trying not to breathe lest it mask a noise. He closed his eyes to concentrate. Then, from the gloom, a voice.


The voice was quiet and sounded strangely aerated, like the speaker was making an effort to breathe out whilst speaking. And there was something wrong with the pronunciation; the T was an affricate, sounding more like the ts in cats. Portser. Despite the strange pronunciation, slower speech and lower pitch, that the voice was unmistakably Minkowski’s. Porter tried to speak, but struggled.

“Shhhhhhhh,” Minkowski breathed. There was another long silence and Porter tried to find the energy and coordination to speak. It was as though Porter had lost the feeling in his mouth, his face generally. Again he tried to move his arms to check, but couldn’t.

He took stock of the situation. His eyesight was improving. He could certainly distinguish blocks of light and shadow, but that confused him. It should have been dark, but clearly the large blocks of light were windows. It must be daytime. How long had he been out? He couldn’t hear anything, but had heard Minkowski’s voice well enough to distinguish him. His skin felt chilled, as though it were moist. He couldn’t move his arms and when he tried, he couldn’t move his legs either. He could wriggle his torso, but that didn’t seem to help and he lay still.

He tried speaking again. He was sure his mouth was moving, but couldn’t tell why he wasn’t making a sound. With welcome surprise he realised that his mouth no longer felt sandy and parched and instantly felt better. That must have been Minkowski’s doing, he rationalised. He must have had an accident, Porter thought – maybe there was an explosion – and Minkowski has been looking after me. He realised I was dehydrated and gave me fluids. He relaxed a little.

As for the rest of his diagnostic check, there was just a dull ache, a throbbing, from his gut. But that too made sense. That could be explained as part of the accident or explosion scenario. Didn’t help explain why Minkowski wasn’t talking. Porter tried to clear his throat to talk again.

“Porter,” Minkowski said. There was a low, hissing, clicking noise which might have been Minkowski clearing his throat, but shouldn’t have been. “Porter,” the voice tried again and this time it sounded much more like Minkowski.

“How are you doing there, Porter.” It wasn’t a question and it didn’t sound like there was much regard in the voice. Then there was the clicking again. The voice wasn’t making the clicking noise. Porter strained to listen, and he realised the clicking wasn’t stationary. So; the clicking was footsteps.

After a few more minutes Porter’s vision had cleared enough for him to make out shapes. It was indeed daylight, so he must have been out for at least twelve hours given the time that he entered the building. The room itself was still quite shadowy, because one pair of thick curtains was still pulled close, but not quite together. He still could not see Minkowski.

“Do you remember Vernon?” Minkowski said, with a little more natural intonation in his voice. Porter was glad that he sounded more human than before. Of course I remember Vernon, he wanted to say. Of course I remember him because he was one of my best friends, he wanted to say but couldn’t.

“I watched him die, did I ever tell you that?” Porter wanted to nod. He’d heard the story two or three times. 

“I turned the radio off. I never told you that, did I? Vernon was trying to talk to me, to ask for help probably. I just – I suddenly thought that the creatures could detect radio waves. I didn’t want them to get me. I turned the radio off so they wouldn’t detect our position but I watched Vernon pleading with me through the binoculars. The creatures piled onto him and I ordered the other guys back to the truck for their safety. But I kept watching. I never told the lieutenant that. I said that they attacked him and carried him off, that much is true. But they didn’t kill him. They carried him back to the morgue ship.”

Clicking. He was on the move again, towards the window. A shape passed in front of it but Porter’s eyes couldn’t focus quickly enough. He winced at the effort. His stomach was starting to hurt again and he felt nauseous.

“Have you ever wondered why we haven’t seen more ships land, Porter? I thought I’d worked it out. But I wasn’t sure. I needed to test my hypothesis.” Porter was confused. What did this have to do with Vernon? “I was sort of right. I was completely right, actually, to a point. But my theory didn’t go far enough.”

“Well, they took Vernon, and Djalili was dead. That just left you and me. I wanted to know what happened to Vernon. During the last attack, I left the foyer door open. Set a trap. I thought, if I could get one of them inside maybe I could trap it, observe it. Learn more about it.”

“I thought, the next batch of refugees that come through, if there’s a weak one I’m going to take them. Maybe even a Leaver. That would be even better. No one would miss a Leaver.” There was a chilling hissing sound from Minkowski. “And it worked. To a point. I trapped one in the kitchen, locked it in the walk-in fridge. Power’s not on, so nothing happened to it. It’s like a flea but about the size of a spaniel. Fought like a bitch though, and I didn’t want to use the gun. I needed it alive. Managed to take it out with a flashbang and then beat it with a fire extinguisher.”

“I watched it through the little porthole in the door for hours. I thought it would be violent. I thought it might attack the door, or the window. It saw me watching it. It was… it seemed to sit on its hind, facing the door. The only way I can describe it is like a scared puppy. It actually looked sad. I swear its eyes looked so human… I had to leave it. I honestly thought it was trying to bewitch me.”

“I left it for a whole day. I thought that would weaken it. Make it docile. I discovered that if I banged hard on the fridge doors it would get scared, especially with something else metal, it would hide at the back. I kept looking out for someone to put in with it so that I could observe. I would know what happened to Vernon. But no one came. It looked like it was starting to suffer, like it hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for days. I didn’t want that. I was starting to panic. Then you came along.”

“I took you out, carried you downstairs. The plan was to put you in with it. I knew you would want to know what happened to Vernon too. I had it planned. Beat the door, scare it back, put you in, sit back. Observe.”

“But it played me. It wasn’t weak at all. It was cowering at the back and I had to put you down, open the door, turn round and pick you up again. The moment I looked away to pick you up, it was on me.”

“I’ve been reading about insects, earth insects. Trying to get a handle on what we’re up against. Fleas do have a mouth, but not teeth as such, did you know that? They pierce the skin with the mouth and suck blood. That’s what I thought I was up against. Keep the mouth away from me and I should have been safe. But this one was different. Like a fly, it had a proboscis. It threw up some sort of goo – flies throw up the contents of their stomach, and the digestive acids break down food. While I was trying to get it out of my eyes and mouth, the proboscis went straight down my throat. I couldn’t fight it off. What it vomited on me was some kind of muscle relaxant. I wanted to fight back but I couldn’t. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t feel, I could barely see, although the sight comes back in time. Colours first, then you start to be able to distinguish blocks of light and shade, then I guess it changes depending on what you become.”

“I felt the proboscis in my gullet, but I couldn’t gag. I had no reflexes left in my muscles. I could feel it filling me inside, excreting this warm, thick liquid inside me. This wasn’t like the muscle relaxant goop, which was thin and watery. This was thick. Sticky. As it withdrew its proboscis, it dripped some onto my face. It felt like – it felt like slug slime.”

“It took several hours to wear off. By then I could already feel myself changing. My eyesight – it was crazy at first, but now… yeah, it’s a little blurry at the edges but now I have almost 360 vision. It’s the compound lenses. I imagine you can feel it too. My best guess is that there’s something in our individual psychology or physiology that facilitates the change. Anyway, the creature flew off after it left me. Maybe it thought you were dead, maybe there’s a period before they can impregnate again. I didn’t know that part yet.”

“I was able to carry you back upstairs, although it took some time. I was weak, I was still having pains in my stomach. They wear off, by the way. At first I assumed it was something hatching, but it’s not like that. It’s not eggs, you see. That’s not how it reproduces.”

“It’s like there’s a… a mass consciousness, almost. A collective memory. It’s not quite a hive mind, we don’t think as one, but I think that behaviour will come. Humans would call it instinct. But as we change, it’s as though the latent memory of the species becomes accessible. I say species; it’s a virus, Porter. That’s the easiest way to describe it in our terms. It’s  the oldest thing there is, apart from the universe itself, and it has seen everything. The things I can see now, the memories that are coming to me! I can see the birth of every star, every planet, every galaxy. I have seen what the gods can only imagine.” 

“As it finds a new host – a new planet – the virus spreads and finds the life forms that are most adapted to survive on that planet. The creatures that we see now, the ones we’ve spent so long futilely fighting against – they were not the ones that landed here. They came from a long way away, a very long way. The creatures that piloted the ships here died very quickly after entering our atmosphere and the ships landed on autopilot. Remember when the report came in? We assumed that they’d only just landed? They’d been here a few weeks, just picking off individual people and changing them. The incident we investigated was just the first time they’d been discovered by locals. There were too many to stay hidden at that point, that’s all.”

“So now you understand what I meant when I said, ‘have you ever wondered why we haven’t seen more ships’. There were only ever the few that landed in Yorkshire. They didn’t need any more. Each human that they change can go on spreading the virus until it dies. It’s rewriting our DNA, our structure, inside each cell. It rebuilds us from the inside out into a form that it thinks is best adapted for long life on the planet. In our case, it’s reconstructing us as insects. Mix and match insects, picking a part here and a part there, according to what forms and functions will be needed for long life once the virus is the only non-plant life on the planet.”

“I can already feel my thoughts changing. I don’t think my human mind has long left. These will probably be my last words, Porter, the last chance I have to converse with another human. I’m sorry that you can’t respond, Porter. I hope you can see that what I’ve done has made you better.”

“I sent Rooihemp and the others back to the APC, told them to get out of there and warn everyone that we were being invaded. I said I would make my own way back, but I didn’t. I wanted to see what they had done with Vernon. I stayed to watch. He was wrong about it being a morgue ship. They were not bodies behind the doors, not dead ones anyway. The tube behind each door was an incubator. They helped the change come faster.”

“They took Vernon out of his incubator after only a few hours. At first I couldn’t see what was happening as so many creatures were around him. I could see his head, his torso. He was naked, but apart from being dirty he looked unharmed. They’re called urticating hairs, Porter, did you know that? He wasn’t dirty, the hairs were already growing through his skin. They brought him out to feed him, I think. Vomited something into his face, which certainly seemed to revive him. I think at that point, with the accelerated change, his mind had probably gone. His human mind. His arms had started to stretch out to become legs. He rolled over onto his front and propped himself up. It took him hours to master, Porter, but eventually he became very proficient, very mobile. His back legs were always stronger.”

“I wanted him back. When Djalili died there was nothing I could do. If I could get Vernon back, maybe I could get it reversed. Of course I didn’t know what I was dealing with then, none of us did. I didn’t know much about spiders back then but I knew they didn’t eat plant food, and there was nothing on the flat grassland, so I waited for him to head for the woods. I was going to corner him.”

“It took me a while to find him. He was crouching over a toad, or a frog, something like that. I was trying to creep close while he was preoccupied and I managed to sneak round the front of him while he was crouched over. I’d only just got into my hiding place when he leaned back and vomited over it in preparation for eating it.”

“I don’t know what noise of revulsion I made, but it was loud enough. He looked up, straight at me. His head was receding back into what had once been his chest and he had no neck. He’d already started growing the second row of postero-lateral eyes, coming out of what would have been his cheekbones. He took a few steps and sprang at me. That’s how hunting spiders catch their prey, Porter. Not all spiders weave webs. I didn’t know that then either.”

“He pinned me down and I tried to hold him off. I couldn’t quite reach my rifle but I had my bayonet in my calf pocket and I managed to get that out. I struggled to hold him off. I managed to cut him, just a gash on the side of the head, but the impact knocked the knife out of my hand. He recoiled and paused, and that gave me just enough time to grab the knife and drive it at his face. I was already swinging the knife when he said my name.”

Porter was struggling to process all he’d heard and his insides were in flux. It was a long time before Porter heard Minkowski click-click-click towards the window.

There was a bright light, and Porter realised Minkowski was pulling open the remaining curtains. For the first time, Porter was able to see around the room. He was in the bedroom, on the floor, facing the window with the bed to one side and a row of mirrored wardrobe doors down the other wall. To help him see better, Minkowski pulled back the other curtain using the powerful mandibles that his jawbones had elongated into. His spine was curved, fusing into the back of his head, and his arms were the becoming wiry, hinged forelegs typical of the cockroach. His ears were gone, leaving just scarred holes on either side of his head above which pubescent antennae were growing. When he spoke, his mandibles opened and closed wordlessly.

“I wanted to share it with you, Porter. This gift.” As best he could, Minkowski motioned towards the full length mirrors with his not yet fully formed forelegs.

Porter hadn’t yet worked out why he couldn’t move his arms and legs, but at the bidding of his old friend he tried again to move. He quickly discovered that each segment of his body had groups of bristles and, by anchoring them into the carpet, he could flex his muscles and drag himself round very effectively until he was facing the mirrors. As he looked over his glistening, cylindrical new body, he was already dreaming of the stars. 

The revolution will begin at school

When I was at school I learned
That the currency of Uzbekistan is the Som
How to solve simultaneous equations 
By using substitution
That the sixth longest river in Asia
Is the Mekong
And that Sir Francis Bacon
Was born in 1561.

When I was at school I did not learn
That it was okay to be queer.

I grew up during Clause 28, which it looks like we’re heading towards a new version of, but certainly I did not grow up thinking it was safe or okay to be queer.

I mean, I didn’t know that I was at that point, I thought everyone felt like me. But now I know that some people like roasted plum with brandy ice cream, and some of y’all like vanilla.

There were only seven chicken meatballs in my pack of eight

There were only seven chicken meatballs in my pack of eight
So I opened up my Macbook to send an email of complaint.

She said

Look. You need to get a sense of perspective.
It’s petty, it’s sad, and you sound like a git.
Plus, it’s a romantic disincentive
So if you’re actively trying to repel me
Congratulations. You achieved your objective.
When you complain about living a consumerist life
Your parsimony is an oral contraceptive.
I can’t stand to live another minute of it
And if I’m losing the will to live, feck this.

She left.

She also left the outside light on as she slammed the garden gate
So I opened up my Macbook to send her an email of complaint.

This is my attempt, based on an averagely true story, at a true crime/romance/poetry crossover and it’s called “There were only seven chicken meatballs in my pack of eight”.

The main part of the poem featuring her dialogue is a ‘magic 9’ poem. A magic nine poem has nine lines, any length and meter, as long as the rhyme scheme is ABACADABA – it took me a little while to realise because I’m slow on the uptake, but this is the word ABRACADABRA without the letter R.

This poem was inspired partly by true events (I really did have seven red pepper chicken meatballs in my packet of eight from M&S (way back before I was a vegan) and I still feel sore about being robbed by them) but mostly by my realisation at the sheer number of words that rhyme with -ective. Yes, honestly.


There are many unique practices within the long history of excarnation.

Traditionally, Indian bodies were often left out to be scavenged by vultures and other carrion birds. In parts of Europe, bodies were dismembered and the parts boiled in water or vinegar to remove the flesh. Louis XIV of France underwent this ritual, to avoid his body decaying on the journey back to France from the Eighth Crusade. Within some Polynesian tribes the practice was to tie the bodies to the high boughs of trees, allowing new branches to grow through and around them. Other tribes would leave bodies in a sitting position facing out to sea.

For thousands of generations Xander Michael’s ancestors had used fire. For three days the body, swaddled in linen like a newborn, would lie atop a flat rock in a high place above their villages. At first light on the fourth day, the body would be set ablaze so that the whole village could see the pyre and celebrate their passing into the next world. When the flames died, the wind took the ashes to renew the soil so that the body’s energy would not be lost.

The couple leaned against the car, watching. The linen burned with a bright yellow flame. Soon the skin began to blister, and it almost seemed alive as the body’s water store boiled and evaporated and the subcutaneous fat melted and burned. There was a sickeningly sweet tang in the air. Time to go. When she started the car, the radio soothed into life.

“Meanwhile authorities continue to be concerned for the whereabouts of FBI Special Agent Lucy Draughn as their search for her moves into a fourth day. Draughn, who was heading up the task force chasing serial killer Xander Michaels and his wife Tanya, believed that Michaels was taking refuge in the Tongass National Forest, where he may have some familial ties. An FBI spokesperson said that they were ‘extremely concerned’ for the welfare of Agent Draughn and urged anyone with information about her to come forward to the authorities.”

“Who’s next?” he asked.

I have long been fascinated by the practices of excarnation and especially sky burials. I think that’s how I would like to go, a very green, natural burial; from earth you came, and to earth you shall return.

When I wrote this story, I just had the word, and the intention of writing something short. I usually like a lot of dialogue, and this is the least I’ve ever used. I don’t even know where the names came from. Sometimes stories will do that.