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Thom Yorke: Last Flowers

Updated: Jan 6, 2021

Russell Cunningham

When the panic swept through England, the scale was measured in loo roll. The supermarket rush for toilet paper evoked the run on Northern Rock. Which adds up really, in a nation fuelled by big money and bullshit.

The mood turned dark, the air turned fetid, the headlines got so loud. Now the news resembles a Hollywood film, but the sets are all too real. The daily press briefing is a game show. Nothing is normal. Everything has changed. Relationships – familial, fraternal, financial – are tested.

Appliances have gone berserk

I cannot keep up

Treading on people’s toes

Snot-nosed little punk

Welcome to Lockdown London: no sunbathers allowed, although they did not seem to get the message. Fear and loathing drape the blinging city, outraged by a walk in the park. Today we witness anger and sadness and grief, the mounting toll of grim statistics; tomorrow we’ll read their stories and count the awful cost, hold those close to us closer still. When it’s all over, when tomorrow comes.

I can’t face the evening straight

You can offer me escape

Houses move and houses speak

If you take me there you’ll get relief

Spring bursts into view, refracted by our windows. Sunshine and birdsong call us. And yet we must remain within our homes, roaming through the forests of thought. We have withdrawn from each other to protect each other, Rebecca Solnit wrote in the Guardian this month. Although staying put is hard, maybe we will be reluctant to resume our rushing about, and something of the stillness now upon us will stay with us.

And if I want to talk, I just want to talk

Please don’t interrupt

Just sit back and listen

In a 2015 interview, Thom Yorke told of a yearly trip with friends to live in the woods for three or four days. ‘I always find the first 24 hours very frightening. In fact when you hear a swarm of bees and the sound of them coming towards you, it’s just terrifying. But when you come out of it after a few days, you feel so different, there’s an odd sense of peace.’

Yorke’s green conversion occurred as he and designer Stanley Donwood spent a disproportionate amount of time on the net while doing the artwork for Radiohead’s 2000 release Kid A. We came across the Worldwatch Institute’s website, which was full of scary statistics about icecaps melting, and weather patterns changing, he wrote in 2008. We became obsessed with it, and it ended up inspiring us to use an image of a mountain range on the cover of the record.

A cover won’t change the world, of course, but we each start somewhere. Yorke got involved with Friends of the Earth and, of any criticism for having based my life on touring, and the rock industry is a high energy-consuming industry, he countered: As I heard George Monbiot saying not long ago, isn’t it funny how in the space of a year we went from listening to sceptics who denied this was happening to suddenly saying we’re all doomed – how interesting that both scenarios demand that we do nothing. That can’t be right. You should never give up hope.

Radiohead are committed to carbon-neutral touring, focusing on festivals and venues with solid public transport links. But that was when the world was open for business. Now we see borders shut, passenger jets grounded, arenas used as medical facilities. Artists are postponing or ditching gigs, punters watch archived shows online. Air pollution dropping, city skies clearing, the planet is bouncing back: if only human life was not the cost.

But there’s always a price, and someone doomed to pay it. Covid-19 has jammed our memory. It’s easy to view the past in sepia, when really yesterday was fool’s gold. Ordinary life before the pandemic was already a catastrophe of desperation and exclusion for too many human beings, an environmental and climate catastrophe, an obscenity of inequality, wrote Rebecca Solnit. It is too soon to know what will emerge from this emergency, but not too soon to start looking for chances to help decide it.

Springtime brings the promise of renewal. The shift is here. We’re changing. We’ll never be the same. And the songs of our years will emerge with us from the chrysalis, taking flight in altered state.

Last Flowers was recorded during Radiohead’s sessions for 2007s In Rainbows, their seventh album, and – although its true meaning remains with the composer, not this random hack – it speaks to me while waiting to rejoin the world.

It’s too much, too bright, too powerful

Amid despair, hope lives in every breath. Nature will call us again, back to the green and blue of wonder. And we who survive will walk out to sunlight, draw upon the air, reach up and touch the sky.


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