Is this really the time to open up a book about one of the worst global pandemics (before this) and see images of masked people like a reflection of your own lockdown?
I was introduced to this book as the author gave a wonderful illustrated talk on zoom. Arnold is an ex journalist based in the Nottingham area but has more recently been writing a number of acclaimed histories, including Necropolis:and its Dead, Bedlam:London and its mad, City of Sin, London and its Vices, Globe: Life in Shakespeare’s London. Her first novel, Lost Time won a Betty Task Award. As well as work in journalism/literature she has a degree in psychology and this shows through her case studies within the book.
It was fascinating (and disturbing) to read the background and the spread of the pandemic in 1918 against the back drop of governments wanting to focus on the war effort instead. As the summer of 1918 made way towards victory for the Allies in WWI, what was called the ‘Spanish Flu’ suddenly overwhelmed the globe killing up to 100 million people. At that point it became one of the most devastating natural disasters in world history.
When this was published in 1918 it’s main link was to the centenary of the end of WWI. Now it stands as a dire warning that maybe many politicians should have read at the beginning of 2020. Words that maybe in 2018 we had never heard of now are part of our lexicon. Wet markets (from where once again it seemed the pandemic started), quarantine, isolation, masks, vaccines (of course at that time medics and scientists could only dream of the world today in which rapid developments have produced the current immunisation programmes).
Behind all the figures which were staggering (In American army camps where the flu spread wildly 100s died every day) alongside those soldiers in France injured but seeing the end of fighting were also struck down dead in cramped hospital units – the English Channel and home in close view but never reached.
I liked the highlighting of those who tried their best to set up systems to prevent the spread where possible but were often ignored with tragic consequences. One such was Chief Officer of Health in Manchester Dr James Niven who used wider public health information and acts such as closing schools to stop the spread (sound familiar?) There were 100,000 cases of influenza in Manchester in 1918 and only 322 died. I am not sure what Tier that would have put them in now and of course Dr Niven had only hope that people had built up immunity, not a jab in the arm to stop the spread as winter approached.
Arnold writes of the stories of the human lives behind the numbers and how they crossed all society, although as usual poverty and overcrowding in insanitary housing was a huge cause of the spread and high mortality rates in cities. The scenes of theatre and society balls may seem out of place but then we found ‘celebrities’ using their wealth these days to behave much as they always do.
As a personal read I felt I wanted to pass a copy to so many people including those I know in the NHS working so hard in the current pandemic. I think book groups will really like to read this and compare incidents and responses historically across the hundred years with both hindsight and of course modern medical advances. The photographs within the book stand as permanent reminders that history does repeat itself and that here now, over 100 years after this pandemic Spanish flu burned out eventually across the globe, these real images and words are even more prescient and should have left lessons from which to learn. Time will tell whether this may not be the last time we will be seeing such a global pandemic hit us again.
Reviewed by Philipa Coughlan
Published first in Hardback 2018 by Michael O’Mara Books Limited but now reprinted in paperback.
ISBN – 978-78929-293-0