Spike

There is a spike of infections in Glasgow and Bolton, possibly one on the way for Leeds, and they are taking it carefully in Caerphilly.

Spike Milligan’s gravestone reads: ‘I told you I was ill’. It makes us laugh because the idea of falling ill, falling foul of the spike, terrifies us.

Do you remember Spike the dog in Tom and Jerry? Tom fell foul of Spike all the time. Spike – when he wasn’t chasing Tom – was a big softie at heart despite his pumped chest and shoulders and his red spiked collar, punk-style, just like Sid Vicious might have worn to match his spikey hair.

No spiked hair for Spike Lee – that close-shaven, hat-wearing, glasses-bearing hero, always doing the right thing, waking us up through film, calling us to attention, shaking us back to life from the spiked-drink sleep of indifference we occasionally wake from, wide-eyed to recognise the injustices in the world.

And those injustices begin small. Take the spikes that were stuck onto the boughs of mature trees in Bristol’s leafy chi-chi district of Clifton to prevent pigeons thoughtlessly and recklessly pooping on expensive cars. (Stop the pigeon! — Where’s Dastardly and Muttley when you need them?) And, by the way, there is a district of Bristol called Spike Island – couldn’t they have sent the pigeons there?

Or think of the metal spikes installed in doorways and ledges of London’s top shops, banks and brokerages; spikes implanted into the ground so that the homeless could not plant themselves there, semi-sheltered from the elements in their cardboard boxes and sleeping bags.

Which reminds me of the old use of the word ‘spike’ to mean a hostel for the homeless. You’ll find it used in George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, in the part where he chooses to live destitute in and around London to know and understand the life of a tramp. “At about a quarter to six the Irishman led me to the spike. It was a grim, smoky yellow cube of brick, standing in a corner of the workhouse grounds.” So, one hundred years ago we provided the homeless with spikes, now we spike them.

Makes me wonder if we know any better now about anything. Granted, there is no more of that gruesome putting heads on spikes – William Wallace, Thomas More, Oliver Cromwell – outside Tower Bridge, but just how much have we progressed when you consider the spikes of prejudice and intolerance puncturing the world? Where I grew up, we had walls to keep us apart, and, just to be sure, there were spikes along the top, a crown of thorns. They were installed to spike the imposter, stop them from encroaching and throwing bricks, or something worse. But who am I kidding? Those spike-rimmed walls were in Belfast and Derry and other Troubles’ flashpoints, while the only spikes my friends and I knew were those we wore on the Mary Peters Track to help us hug the corners and shave four seconds off our 800m personal best.

Ever been spiked by a weever fish when paddling in shallow water? They call it a sting, but those little devils spike you with a pain you’ll never forget, applied by a tiny dorsal fin sticking out of the sand but disguised to the human eye: a poisoned needle, a toxic knife, a venomous shard of broken glass.

When I was small, we had an old-fashioned writing bureau, one where the front opened out and became the table-top with two extendable arms pulled out for it to rest on. Inside there was a simple disc of wood from which extended a metal spike for filing paid bills and invoices. I don’t think it was ever used for such a thing, but it fascinated me. It was the sort of lethal item that Colonel Mustard might murder Professor Plum with in the library, were Mrs Peacock not to get to him first. And did you know that journalistic material considered for publication but then rejected is ‘spiked’? Perhaps because the editor whacks it onto just such an item.

They say we are in for a spike in the price of bread due to too hot a summer and a resulting poor wheat harvest ahead. And don’t even talk to me about oil prices, they’re spikier than a porcupine.

Are there any good spikes, or do they all portend gloom? Dublin’s Spire on O’Connell Street (the stiletto in the ghetto) is the most beautiful spike I can think of; its 120-metre point is way too high to do anyone any damage. And a spike in the markets, that can be a good thing if your money is invested in the right company.

Having said all that, there is really only one spike that fixates us these days, and we all hope that it’s not going to be too sharp.

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