Viral Verses – Art in Exceptional Times

Book Review | Borthwick Press | Review by Allan Wilkinson

With a dedication to the late Edward Tudor ‘Ted’ Crum, a victim of COVID 19 and a friend to some of the contributors to this collection of poems and illustrations, Viral Verses is a gathering of empathetic writers and illustrators, each with a shared vision of navigating through an unprecedented period in our lives.  Edited by Nicholas Linstead and Stephen Linstead, this collection has been published in aid of NHS Charities Together and to highlight a true sense of togetherness.  With an introduction by Margaret Drabble, who eloquently reminds us of the power, beauty and importance of poetry, Viral Verses captures human empathy at a time when such things are needed most.  Being locked down and locked up behind closed doors with only our thoughts, our music and time on our hands to catch up on all those neglected books we’ve been meaning to read, a vital ingredient is missing, that of social contact with friends, relations, neighbours and potential new acquaintances, all of which we take for granted in less uncertain times.  Viral Verses endeavours to make up for this by demonstrating unity in both words and pictures, with a real sense of a combined effort.        

With so many diverse voices, of differing angles, thought waves and viewpoints between each writer, this book brings a sense of variety both in its individual styles and its execution.  Mike Harding’s contributions are accompanied by exquisite drawings by Jed Grimes, whilst Jessie Summerhayes elects to accompany hers with her own minimalist illustrations.  These illustrations range from simple cartoons, the odd pair of slippers for instance, or a needle and thread, together with a few monochrome photographs, to Alan Andrews’ vivid poster art and Bryan Ledgard’s Manga-inspired ‘bone-handled knife’, artworks that offer a broad spectrum and all of which serve to bring vivid images to these carefully constructed words.

Ray Hearne begins a short poem by staring at a painting on his wall by his friend John Law, while John in turn reminds Ray (and the rest of us) of some of the things that made us what we are today, from the games we played on the streets to such school day treats as Jubblies, Kali and Arrowroot Rock, while watching Captain Pugwash, the Flowerpotmen and the Woodentops on the box; things we like to recall, especially in these bleak times.  Heath Common describes Powis Square in the early hours of the morning as the Swinging Sixties reaches its conclusion, bumping into a Performance-era Mick Jagger, while meditating on the outgoing Brian Jones and the Pink Fairies, with Marc Bolan “living down the street”, illustrated in contemporary style by Bryan Ledgard’s hand.  Evocative stuff indeed.

If times like these force us to look back with a sense of nostalgia and longing, then they also make us sit up and take note.  The pandemic is addressed head on throughout, in such poems as “Pandemic Low Tide in Holderness” by Stephen Linstead, “Evenings in Isolation” by Violet Hatch, “Love in Lockdown” by Gareth Griffith, “Oh Land! World Pandemic” by Adekunle Ridwan and “Lockdown” by David Driver, an optimistic and funny take on the predicament we find ourselves in.  Joe Solo’s title alone, “This is Our Blitz” speaks volumes in just four words, accompanied by Alan Andrews’ bleak and doomed illustration.  Then there’s the NHS, our heroes in this drama, who are revered in verse.  Ralph McTell, no stranger to verse, reminds us of the “Masks and Gowns”, while Paul Thwaites spells it out clearly, that the letters N H S stand for much more than National Health Service, poignantly illustrated with an angel, courtesy of the hand of Graham Ibbeson.

Singling out such poems hopefully does no disservice to the others.  We often hear the words “we’re all in this together” as if we’re all living through the same common experience, which of course we’re not.  I’m sure a government minister, a school teacher, a nurse, a labourer or a retired grandparent are all experiencing completely different things, not to mention the homeless man on the street or those stranded far from home.  All these poems and accompanying illustrations are equally relevant, in that they express singular and individual experiences, yet there’s a good chance that the reader will empathise with many of them.  When things begin to improve and we begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel, quite possibly marked ‘new normal’, Viral Verses will still be just as relevant and important and therefore will make a valuable addition to your bookshelf.