Prog spotlight: Touchstone and the Mad Hatter’s Song

The Mad Hatter’s Song is my favourite by Touchstone. They’re not a band I listen to a lot, but they’re very talented, and somehow they get so much feeling into this song it makes me weep for the city I used to live in.

It’s a dystopian song about London, about the apathy and desolate, crumbling landscape that could be past, present and future all rolled into one. It makes me sad because I love that landscape and it’s important to see the problems in the things that you love.

London Bridge is falling,
Carrion crows are calling,
Big Ben’s turned to rust.

The Cheshire Cat stopped smiling
‘cos the Queen of Hearts was crying,
their rhymes all turned to lust.

And they’re all mad hatters as their cockle shells shatter
and they don’t know who to trust…

My climate-fiction novel, Nimbus (volume 1 is currently under revision), is set in a post-apocalyptic London in 2030 which has been flooded and devastated by supercell storms. When I first heard the Mad Hatter’s Song, I immediately felt the emotions of some of my characters come through.

I don’t want to see a future like that for London but sometimes I feel it’s already there.

Anyway, here’s to a great song.


The second instalment of the tongue-in-cheek snow story I began yesterday.

DAY 2.

‘ARE YOU PREPARED?’ read the headline, emblazoned in offensively thick block capitals across the front of the paper. Egbert sighed and handed the paper back to Cider Sy, determined to get back to his morning coffee. He was sitting in the kitchen, trying to rouse his body from its log-like state induced by the combination of too little sleep and too much cold. He had hazarded a brief glance outside when he had woken up; the world outside was white and powdery.

‘Well, are you prepared?’ Cider Sy asked.

‘Of course.’

‘Okay. The station’s closed.’

‘What, King’s Cross?’


‘King’s Cross is closed?’

‘That’s what I said.’

‘B-but, you can’t close King’s Cross! And St Pancras too?’ He was met with a nod from Cider. ‘That’s – that’s like closing Clapham! It just can’t be done!’ Egbert was angry, and mostly at the fact that he had woken up at six in the morning in the biting cold for nothing.

‘Well, it’s totally snowed in, Egbert,’ said Cider Sy. ‘I just been down to check. It ain’t good.’

‘What the hell were you doing out so early anyway?’

‘I wanted orange juice.’

Egbert left it there, and not a moment too soon, for Mistletoe bounded in.

‘Hey, look at this!’ She slapped down another piece of paper in front of Egbert – this time it was a computer printout. ‘I’ve been reading some interesting stuff about that whole Mayan doomsday thing – ‘

Oh god, Egbert moaned inside.

‘ – and this guy, Roger Efferington, right, says they miscalculated the whole thing. By like, a few weeks. So the doomsday stuff should actually happen this week! I found a whole blog about it too, look, read.’

Egbert reluctantly read, but had to stop after the first line.

‘“The world’s ultimate awakening”… I’m sorry, Misty, this really isn’t my thing.’

His nose was suddenly filled with the smell of orange juice. Cider Sy was peering over his shoulder, scanning the page with what might have passed for interest to anyone who did not know him better.

‘This week, huh? You actually believe that?’ Cider Sy glanced up at Mistletoe.

Mistletoe shrugged. ‘I dunno. It’d be exciting, though.’

‘Not if you have to go in to work.’ Egbert downed the rest of his coffee and tied his shoelaces, before standing up and reaching for his coat.

‘Are you still going in?’ Mistletoe asked, casting an incredulous eye out the window.

‘Come on guys, I still have to go to work.’

‘Suit yourself.’ Cider Sy slunk into the seat he had just left. ‘See you later. If you don’t lose yourself in the snow, that is.’

‘Not with this carrot top, mate,’ Egbert retorted, pointing to his hair. Sometimes he considered self-deprecation to be his best comeback weapon in an arsenal otherwise full of groan-worthy jokes, and as he watched Cider smile and Mistletoe wish him a safe journey, he knew it had paid off this time.


He should have taken Cider Sy’s warning about the state of things outside more seriously, he thought as he tramped through more than a foot of fresh snow just to get to the gate. Further out in the street the heavily-trampled snow had compacted and turned to ice in the continuing sub-zero temperatures. The sky above was a blank sheet, and all he could glean from that was that there was more snow up there; it just had not fallen yet.

Cider had been right about the trains too. Both the underground and overground stations had been closed. There was a mob of angry people outside, demanding answers from the few staff members on duty.

‘If you’ve already got your ticket,’ said the day-glo-jacketed rail worker, ‘then London buses are accepting them today.’ Egbert did not bother trying to move closer to the front of the crowd – this was news enough and he half-snowploughed, half-ice skated on towards the nearest bus stop.

He sat back against the awkward sloping seat and tried calling his girlfriend. But his phone had lost all signal. He cursed. Then he became absurdly aware that there was someone else at the bus stop too. A girl was sitting next to him. She had short golden hair and one of those pixie-ish faces. She wore skinny jeans, an oversized jumper and a khaki biker coat. And high heels. It was very odd.

‘Hi,’ said the girl.

‘Hi,’ he replied. He met her eyes for a second, then looked back down at the strange clothing coordination. After a while he could not hold his curiosity in any longer. ‘Um, why are you wearing heels? I mean, isn’t that really stupid in this weather?’

‘Are you kidding?’ said the girl. ‘Heels are the best thing for getting through thick ice. It’s the ice pick effect. Better grip.’ She kicked her legs out in display. Egbert thought about it for a second: smaller surface area, more pressure applied. It actually made sense. Then she said, ‘So um, why are you trying to get signal in a whiteout? Isn’t that kind of silly?’

They sat in silence for a long while. Egbert drifted back into his internal world, which seemed frozen in anxiety. When would the bus come? When would he hear from Marcy? When would this anticyclone up and leave?

‘I don’t think the bus is coming,’ said the girl sadly.  ‘We’ve been waiting forty minutes now, you know. My toes are froze.’

‘Yeah, same here,’ he said.

She grinned, shook back the random long bit of hair at her forehead, and decided to strike up more of a conversation.

‘You going far?’

‘Not really. Just across to Baker Street.’

‘Ah. You could probably walk that if it doesn’t come.’

A while later she said, ‘So what’s your name?’


‘Egbert? You don’t look like an egg at all. You’re way too skinny. Oh, I get it. It’s ironic, right?’

He suddenly became very aware that he was talking to a hipster. He took in her clothes once again and recalled a definition from one of the many humour blogs he had seen. A feral sweater girl. Yes. Whatever that was.

‘No, it’s not ironic,’ he replied. ‘It’s just… boring, I guess. My parents were either cruel or unimaginative, I can’t figure out which. So what about you?’

‘I’m Jimmy,’ she said proudly. She noticed his puzzled expression, which led to the retort, ‘Yeah, it’s a dude name, but so what? It’s cool.’

He had a feeling she might have a rather embarrassing first name, but decided against asking.

The bus was not coming. Okay, so they had established that already. There was only one option left. He would have to walk to work.

He stood up, bade Jimmy farewell and good luck, and hiked on, any delusions of intrepid adventuring being impeded by the occasional embarrassing slip on hidden ice.


Not long later his mobile phone rang. He looked at the number – it was Marcy’s. Hastily answering the phone with half-frozen ham-hands, he said; ‘Marcy”! Oh god I’m so glad you called!’

But it was not Marcy who answered the phone.

‘Hi, I’m calling from Heartlands in Birmingham…’ said a nasal female voice.

He caught his breath. That was a hospital near Marcy’s house.

‘… and we’ve had a woman brought in following a car accident. Her name’s Marcy. I’m trying to contact her relatives.’

Egbert felt a muscle he didn’t know he had twitch beneath his eye. ‘You have Marcy there? Oh god, is she okay? I’m Egbert. Her boyfriend. Please, is she all right?’

There was a pause, a sharp intake of breath from the unfamiliar woman on the other end of the line.


‘I… don’t know how to put this, but she was in intensive care all morning. She didn’t make it.’

‘No. No, no, no, that’s not right!’ His shallow mutterings gave way to deep rooted shouting. ‘That can’t be! She was a careful driver. How? How was she hurt? Why didn’t she make it?’

‘She skidded on black ice under a bridge. Two other cars involved. She lost consciousness, she was put on life support and needed surgery. But we were too late. I’m sorry.’ The combination of her genuine voice and the visceral images being generated in his mind made him lose the ability to be mad. He mumbled something incoherent and hung up.

He had no idea what to do. For a good few minutes he stopped dead in a snowdrift in the road, his life crashing to a standstill along with him. The chaos in his head mounted to such an intensity that he ended up blanking it out entirely and his feet started to carry him on in the direction he had been going. To work. His girlfriend had just died and he was carrying on to work like everything was normal, except for the snow.  The slightly detached part of his brain reckoned this was some kind of survival instinct, purposefully made to react to stressful situations, so he just went with it.


It took a full hour to navigate the treacherous roads to his office. What was normally a ten minute tube ride had become a proper mission of – dare he say – epic proportions.

Only Norbert and Albert were in.

‘Where’s everyone else?’ Egbert asked.

‘Dunno,’ said Norbert. ‘Well, Tim, Terry and Todd made it in. Oh, and Cuthbert on fourth floor.’

‘Must be the magnetic Bert field,’ said Albert with a snort.

Egbert ignored this entirely. He fired up his computer and tried to work, and while he was glad that nobody had picked up on his inner distress, he became aware all too quickly that he was unable to concentrate on work. He stared for a long time at the conversion report on his screen until he eventually caved and opened up a browser window, typing in the URL for the Met Office. He had barely gotten to M-E-T when the browser auto-completed the rest of the address, so often it was that he went there.

He gaped. It was a wider gape than the one he had done the previous day, and the blink that followed it was more blinky than the one the previous day too. If the charts were right then this was getting serious. The weather front appeared to have settled and stagnated right over Scandinavia and all of the UK, and for the five day forecast at least, it was not showing any signs of letting up. The Azores high was far out of reach, and even the low pressure cyclones from Iceland were not pushing down or even attempting to dislodge it. Like a last staunch supporter of the Cold War, the anticyclone from Siberia was here to stay.

Plastered across the UK map were amber and red snow warnings. Another blizzard would move in tomorrow, and there was a big red warning over London. How much of that applied to his area? He had just started to enter his postcode to get a more detailed report when the power suddenly cut out. He looked around. The lights were out too. Everything was.

He buried his head in his hands. For god’s sake, was one little weather report too much to ask? Before he had enough time to start thinking about other, more depressing things, he got up and put his coat on. He saw Albert and Norbert had stood up too, in the absence of having working computers, and he caught their attention.

‘Well, let’s go home,’ he said.

‘Oh, we’re not leaving,’ said Norbert.

‘No,’ said Albert. ‘Our trains have been cancelled. And we live outside the city, remember.’

‘How did you get in this morning, then?’ Egbert asked.

‘Oh, we were both at a friend’s party in Euston last night,’ said Norbert. ‘Not too far from your place actually. We walked in.’

Egbert thought it best to leave them to it. They clearly had enough food and drink to last them, what with the kitchen supplies and the vending machine – although they would probably have to break into that last one.

He met Cuthbert in the stairwell on the way out the building. Not that he knew Cuthbert very well anyway, but he thought the man was certainly behaving rather oddly.

‘Our worst fears are being realised,’ mumbled Cuthbert. He was clearly delirious.

‘Cuthbert, what the hell is that in your hand?’ Egbert pointed towards the blue freezer bag that looked like it was full of ice.

‘S-s-alt.’ Cuthbert glanced at him shiftily and yanked the bag out of his reach. ‘It’s for grit! You have to start hoarding grit. If you don’t you might die!’

‘I really don’t think you’re in any danger of that,’ said Egbert.

‘No, you don’t get it. It’s going to get so much worse! It’s like end times. Please believe me! Please believe me!’ Cuthbert’s plaintive wailing reminded him uncomfortably of his own assertions that yes, it would definitely snow, why won’t anyone believe me, uttered only yesterday. He left the man cowering in the stairwell and hurried out the building.

Back out on the streets he went, greeted by a soft flurry of snow which piled down on the existing layers. More people were out and about now, and the mood was one of excitement and… a sort of apprehension, which he did not expect. There was a sense of freedom, and that was both good and bad.

It was primarily bad, he decided, because he got hit by a snowball halfway down the street. He yelled angrily and the young guy who had thrown it merely prepped another one. He hurried on.

It was cold. His gloves were not enough, the cold was biting into them. And speaking of biting… He enviously watched a woman chow down on a sandwich.

Oh god – he was so hungry. Cold and hungry.

He was halfway home when he recognised the person across the street. A khaki jacket pulled up to the neck, a crop of golden hair sticking out from the top – it was Jimmy. He hailed her from over the road and she smiled, stopped and waited. He walked over.

‘Hi,’ said Jimmy.

‘Hi again. What’re you still doing round here?’

‘I could ask the same of you, you know.’

‘We had a power cut at work.’

‘Ah. Well, I work at the falafel shop over there and I know it’s like, only just the afternoon, but the stoves broke down. So nothing to do. Shop’s closed.’ She sighed and kicked at a lump of snow. ‘Guess I’ll go home.’

The youths playing in the streets both behind and ahead of them seemed to have taken on a new element. This element involved a little bit more violence than Egbert was comfortable with. There was no sign of the police – indeed there had been no sign of any kind of authority (save for the two railway staff that morning) since the snowing began, and now people seemed to be realising just how much they could take advantage of this.

He narrowly missed another snowball. The person who threw it shouted and made a rather pathetic comment about his ginger hair. He swore as loudly as he dared and whispered to Jimmy; ‘Let’s go.’

They hurried off down the street in that peculiar half-step half-run that indicated they wanted to be out of there fast, but did not want to draw that much attention to themselves. This technique seldom worked, for it attracted far more attention to them due to the silliness of their steps.

When they turned the corner he realised they had come to the same bus stop from the morning. The street was relatively silent, although they could hear people banging about round the next corner, where Kings Cross St Pancras lay.

‘Can we stop for a sec? I want to try and find out what’s going on,’ Egbert said, pulling his phone from his pocket to check the signal. Jimmy nodded. Since the crowds had started coming out she had gone unusually silent.

So they cowered in a bus shelter and read the latest news on his tiny smartphone screen, Jimmy hanging on to his shoulder closely to get a decent view. It turned out he had a couple bars signal, bu the connection was still wafty.

‘Snowpocalypse starts with a bang!’

‘Crisis as multiple tube stations closed!’

‘Stockpile your food – more snow to come.’

‘Breaking – Supermarket supplies reach all time low due to stockpiling.’

‘Record amount of car crashes in severe icy conditions.’

‘Power cuts across London.’

‘Parts of Birmingham collapse after freak blizzard hits.’

So far so hyperbole, he reckoned. But still, it was scary. What would happen next?

He started to lose signal again, and by the time he had reached the weather reports, it cut out completely. Again. Egbert cursed. His only clue to local forecasting now was the sky itself, and that was as blank and expressionless as porridge.

More people arrived in the street. Further down the street a gang smashed in a shop window, sending three feet of snow thundering into the building. They both looked up and watched, stunned.

‘Can you take me home?’ asked Jimmy.

‘Sure,’ Egbert replied.

‘I wouldn’t normally ask,’ she began, ‘but it’s just that they’re kinda freaking me out.’

‘Hey, I don’t mind. It’s scary. I’m scared too.’

They took their chance when the gang started on a young chap walking down the other end of the street, and they ran as fast as they could in the ice and snow until they had reached the next street. From there, they walked as calmly as possible, sticking to small, narrow spaces.

After ten minutes of walking, Jimmy led him out onto a much broader street. Smithfields market, one of the biggest markets in London, stood proudly opposite him.

‘I’m over there,’ she said, pointing across the marketplace to a tallish building with lots of windows.

‘Wait, you live behind a marketplace?’ Oh great, Egbert thought. Today it would be shoplifting central, if the streets near Kings Cross were anything to go by.

There was a shouting from behind them. The gang from King’s Cross. Egbert’s heart gave a thud. He pushed Jimmy on.

‘Go! Go!’

They pretty much ran from there on, dashing straight through Smithfields and on to the buildings opposite. Down a short alley and up some stairs. The shouts behind them were drawing closer.

‘Get the key, quick!’

She fumbled in her bag, becoming more clumsy the more urgent things became. Eventually she managed to get the key out and open the door. They tumbled inside and Egbert slammed the door behind him, pushing the lock to. And not a moment too soon. A loud hammering on the door. A cry of various obscenities. Lots of foul language usually reserved to describe a woman’s anatomy.

‘You dare come in here and we’ll kill you!’ Egbert yelled in response. He picked up an umbrella leaning by the door. ‘We’re armed!’ His voice had a confidence that completely belied his inner terror.

There was a murmur on the other side. One of the gang saying they were wasting their time; there would be better, easier pickings back down at the market. The hammering stopped, as did the obscenities, and soon footfalls grew quieter as the foul group went off down the stairs.

Egbert relaxed his grip on the umbrella. ‘Ugh. Glad that’s over.’ He glanced around at the flat. It was a small, messy studio setup. A sofa bed, a television, and the basic essentials.

Once he had recovered from the exhaustion, he forced himself to stand upright. ‘Okay, I’d best be off. I don’t want to intrude any further.’

But Jimmy looked out of the window. Snow was falling faster, the sun was getting lower, and the shouting was still going on in the streets below.

‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘You can stay here tonight if you like. It’ll be safer.’ Egbert’s jaw started to drop. Then Jimmy added, ‘You take the sofa bed. I’ll take the floor.’

He was about to protest but she folded her arms and gave him a look that he could not quite describe, but that told him it was better not to argue. And besides, the way things were looking outside, it was safer to stay put for the time being. She was right.

And so he slept that night in a strange bed. He did not like it much. This bed did not know his particular shape, it did not know how to form the correct arrangement of lumps and bumps to fit him. The bed and he had barely met; it felt more rude than anything else to sleep on it so soon. Well, never mind. Sleep on it he must, for what lay ahead would be even more challenging.