Everything Borrowed

A post-apocalyptic roach, Pixar-style

I’ve just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s ‘Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth’. It’s a very entertaining and enlivening look at debt, in the very broadest sense. It’s rare to have economic ideas treated with such creativity – and brought out into the world of literature, society (whatever that is) and the imagination. While it is full of onerous and important ideas, it was also very funny at times – you can sneak up so much more on people if they’re chuckling. It’s made me think a great deal about living within one’s means – and to try and do so even more in future. The final section of the book rather deftly flits into a re-telling of ‘A Christmas Carol’, but with a corporate Scrooge (‘Scrooge Nouveau’, rather than the end’s ‘Scrooge Lite’) receiving visits from aptly-manifested ghosts of Earth Day Past, Present and Future.

I was struck by the appearance of the giant cockroach as the Ghost of Earth Day Future (Worst Case Scenario version), as I realised that a piece of my own writing had engaged in some of the themes of debt, desire and covetousness that the book covers (amongst many others). Certainly my piece – the sixth ‘Vermin’ poem I’ll be performing at Green Man and hopefully other events – is intended (as all the poems are) to make us re-think our relationship to ‘roaches and, by extension, to the Earth. After all, as grand Atwood points out – everything we have, even our bodies, are on short or long-term (the Fates or Furies willing) lease. Payback comes, even for the very wealthiest, into the biggest bio-bank, our planet.

I wanted to share the poem with Margaret Atwood – a writer I very much admire and aspire to (it’s OK to have heroines! (but perhaps not heroine)) – but she can’t receive unpublished work in the post (fair enough, I understand these complex legal matters – although I can’t imagine she would want to or think of ‘stealing’ this!)…So I’ve self-published here online – which gets around it – and will Tweet her the link, as I know she is a big Tweeter (that’s a nice thing, not a weird insult).

If you do, per chance, read this Margaret – then I hope you enjoy the poem. (I tried Tweeting Carol Ann Duffy a piece I’d written before – which is one of my earlier posts – but I don’t think she’s as Twitter-savvy as your good self.) It’s part of a sequence of seven first-person narrative poems by ‘Vermin’ (gull, ant, pigeon, rat, bedbug, roach and fox) and based around the idea of the Seven Deadly Sins, as old-school religious notions of our excesses. This one is a cockroach in a post-apocalyptic scenario – as the one you allude to in the last section of Payback – suggesting to the (human) reader that we should perhaps admire the humble ‘roach rather more. There’s plenty to commend ol’ Blattaria, I think: resourceful, hardy, thriving and perfectly adapted to every climate on Earth. If only economics could take some cues from those key words…

Vermin the Sixth:

Cockroach – Blattaria, Gromphadorhina portentosa / Envy

Admiration’s Cloud

Dirty looks

dirty protests

dirty fights

dirty bombs,

we wish only our living Earth

be cleansed from

you, the dead:

broken imagos.

A niggling, clicking,

sound of necks cricking:

off, you said, with

your own bloated heads.

Running around like

heedless chickens.

Then the day came

with the push-button flames:

your cities were toasted

your bodies were crumbed.

Ashes were ashes, and

the dust made you dumb

at last.

When did admiration’s cloud

become something more a swarm,

more a spore? More an


descending from on high?

You’ve every reason

to wonder.

You were only ever

a moment, a tick

on the face of the clock.

A flashpoint.

An echo.

A boom.

Look for that moment.

Take a deep breath,

stretch your legs,

keep an ear to the ground,

feel your way:

it’s all the same to us.

Have you really no use

for a word

for being like us?

Your naming

grabbed at our limbs.

Call us Germanica,

attach derision for your enemies

to our backs. Load your fear

on our wings. We slid through

the tectonic cracks

of your name-calling. But

if you must,

you may call us

Mother Pangaea.

There are more segments

in our aerials than

days in your year;

and each is of more note.

For you ran, no antenna,

at a thousand-miles-an-hour

into a bursting wall.


You should covet

thy sub-let neighbour’s

green compound-eye views.

For we will not be treading

in your shaken-out shoes.

So there it is. If you do happen to read this, Margaret/Ms. Atwood/Appropriately-deferential-title – there are six others in the series! But having read just one would mean a very great deal to me.

Oh and if you’re into a bit of cultural entomology, I took much inspiration from this Reaktion book on cockroaches – part of a great series about animals, worth checking out:


La Cucaracha

Before you start reading, do press play on this little film of ‘La Cucaracha’ to accompany you: it’s just so gosh darn chirpy.

In my ongoing exploration of all things verminous, I received Marion Copeland’s Reaktion book, ‘Cockroach’, last week. It’s fantastic: a rich cross-cultural-entomological medley of all things cockroach-y.

And there’s the point: there isn’t a word for things which are ‘of cockraoch’ (apart from their name with a ‘y’ on the end), whereas there are for lions (leonine), wolves (lupine), mice (murine) or even the worm (vermian – I like how much this sounds like ‘vermin’). Indeed, I’ve just checked, and the only two – err – ‘cock’ animals on the Animal Adjectives site are the peacock and woodcock. Even these have their own adjectives. They’re nice decorative feathery birds, after all.

It seems we humans would rather have a word for being like any other animal than the humble ‘roach. Having just looked on the Wikipedia site for animal words, not only is there no word for ‘roach-like’, but the collective noun for cockroaches is an ‘Intrusion’. Once again, we’re appalled at an animal so horribly, grotesquely, profusely…successful.

There are thousands of types of ‘roach, adapted to every environment in the world, and they’ve been here for 400 million years. It seems appropriate, then, that they should coincide with the remaining Deadly Sin for my Vermin pieces, that of Envy. Should they be envious of us?  Quite the contrary: such a steadfast survivor and long-term resident of Earth deserves our admiration, at the very least. Quietly and efficiently, ‘roaches have – and will continue to – be a main player on Earth’s stage.

So I’m working on something based on the pub-fact that ‘roaches will outlast us in the event of a nuclear holocaust. According to various accounts, this could well be true: as ‘roaches only shed their exoskeleton (becoming ‘instars’ of increasing size) at each stage of growth, their vulnerability to radiation is much less than our own. So if there was a short blast, most would be OK; although the sustained presence of radiation would start to cause them problems (and indeed adversely affect their sleek design through mutations).

Here’s an image of a mighty fine example of the ‘roach, the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach. I held one of these at the Bristol Festival of Nature a couple of years ago and was pleasantly surprised by how calm, gentle and majestic these highly-efficient detritus feeders are. The one I held fastidiously cleaned the sweat (it was a hot day) from the lines in my palm: perhaps it was fortune-telling. How amazing, to use the run-off from a larger being as nourishment. In other aspects of their lives, there’s a lot we could learn from ‘roaches about using the things around us more effectively, efficiently and in accord with the System from which they – and we – emanate.

A majestic Madagascar Hissing Cockroach: palm-reader and inheritor of the Earth?

The ‘roach voice in my poem will be expounding on why we should indeed envy their hardy anatomy, from a post-apocalyptic setting. If anyone should be considered an ‘Intrusion’, from the perspective of the Earth, of time and of biology – ‘biocentrically’, as Copeland terms it – then it should certainly be humankind. We’ve been here but a breath and will certainly not outlast the ‘roach.

But think not, dear reader, on notions of our possible self-destruction. Instead, continue to feast your ears on La Cucaracha. While the humble roach might not have an adjective, it has a mighty fine theme tune…

And next time you might meet one, show a little respect: many are only around because we waste so much, and they’ll be running things soon enough.