Desecrated graves at a Jewish cemetery in Prestwich, Lancashire, in 1965. (Getty.)
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Britain's last anti-Jewish riots

Why have the 1947 riots been forgotten?

In 1947 a washed-out summer had followed a harsh winter, and Britain was in the grip of recession as it struggled to restart its economy after the Second World War. On the August bank holiday weekend, the weather in Manchester had turned hot and stuffy. Trade in the shops was poor, rationing was in full swing and many workers had opted to stay in the city for the long weekend.

In cinema queues and on street corners, one topic dominated the conversation: the murder of two British army sergeants by Irgun paramilitaries in Mandate Palestine. The Irgun was one of several Zionist groups fighting a guerrilla war to force British troops out of the territory and establish the state of Israel. It had kidnapped the two sergeants in retaliation for death sentences passed on three of its own fighters. The three men were executed by British forces on 29 July, and two days later the bodies of the soldiers were discovered amid the trees of a eucalyptus grove near Netanya. They had been hanged and the ground beneath them booby-trapped with a landmine.

It was just one incident of many in a vicious conflict. Militants had bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem a year previously, and even set off small bombs in London. But the “ser­geants affair”, as it came to be known, caused public outrage in mainland Britain.

On 1 August, a Friday, the Daily Express reported the story on its front page, prominently displaying a photograph of the bodies which, it promised its readers, would be a “picture that will shock the world”. British Jewish leaders condemned the killings, but more lurid details followed in the next day’s papers. That weekend, as Walter Lever, a working-class Jewish resident of Manchester recalled, “There was nothing to do but walk the streets . . . discussing the newspaper,” the story of the hanged sergeants “taking precedence over the week’s murders and rapes”.

There were already signs that a backlash was imminent. In Birkenhead, near Liverpool, slaughterhouse workers had refused to process any more meat for Jewish consumption until the attacks on British soldiers in Palestine stopped. Around Merseyside, the anger was starting to spill on to the streets as crowds of angry young men gathered in Jewish areas.

On Sunday afternoon the trouble reached Manchester. Small groups of men began breaking the windows of shops in Cheetham Hill, an area just north of the city centre which had been home to a Jewish community since the early 19th century. The pubs closed early that day because there was a shortage of beer, and by the evening the mob’s numbers had swelled to several hundred. Most were on foot but others drove through the area, throwing bricks from moving cars.

Soon the streets were covered in broken glass and stones and the crowd moved on to bigger targets, tearing down the canopy of the Great Synagogue on Cheetham Hill Road and surrounding a Jewish wedding party at the Assembly Hall. They shouted abuse at the terrified guests until one in the morning.

The next day, Lever said, “Cheetham Hill Road looked much as it had looked seven years before, when the German bombers had pounded the city for  12 hours. All premises belonging to Jews for the length of a mile down the street had gaping windows and the pavements were littered with glass.”

By the end of the bank holiday weekend, anti-Jewish riots had also taken place in Glasgow and Liverpool. There were minor disturbances, too, in Bristol, Hull, London and Warrington, as well as scores of attacks on Jewish property across the country. A solicitor in Liverpool and a Glasgow shopkeeper were beaten up. Nobody was killed, but this was the most widespread anti-Jewish violence the UK had ever seen. In Salford, the day after a crowd of several thousand had thrown stones at shop windows, signs appeared that read: “Hold your fire. These premises are British.”

Arsonists in West Derby set fire to a wooden synagogue; workers at Canada Dock in Liverpool returned from the holidays to find “Death to all Jews” painted above the entrance. And in Eccles, a former sergeant major named John Regan was fined £15 for telling a crowd of 700: “Hitler was right. Exterminate every Jew – every man, woman and child. What are you afraid of? There’s only a handful of police.”

Just two years after British troops had liberated Bergen-Belsen, the language of the Third Reich had resurfaced, this time at home. Anger about what had happened in Palestine was one thing, but it seemed to have unleashed something far more vicious.

Hidden history

Whitechapel, London, 2012. I am waiting outside the library – a glassy new building just up the high street from the Victorian edifice where a generation of self-educated Jewish intellec­tuals and artists congregated in the early years of the 20th century – to meet Max Levitas. It’s a Thursday afternoon and I have interrupted his weekly ritual: a trip to the Turkish bath in Bethnal Green, a walk that Levitas still makes, alone, at the age of 97.

Born in Dublin in 1915 to Jewish refugee parents from the Baltic, Levitas has lived in White­chapel since 1930. In 1947 when the rioting erupted, he was a local councillor and member of the Communist Party. Although London was spared riots on the scale of those in the north, he recalls how the hanging sergeants incident compounded “animosity” towards Jews in the East End. “I opposed the hanging when I spoke at meetings, but the main fight was dealing with racism that foreigners were getting jobs and Jews were getting jobs.”

This was one sign that the anti-Jewish feeling had a deeper source than any act of terrorism in the Middle East. Postwar austerity was at its harshest. Contrary to the cheery “Keep Calm and Carry On” nostalgia with which the period is recalled today, it was a time of hunger and poverty. A fuel shortage during the winter of 1946-47 had led to soaring unemployment; in the spring of 1947 it peaked at 1.9 million. Hopes that anti-Semitism, which had re-emerged during previous economic downturns, would have disappeared with the defeat of Hitler were short-lived. Instead, as the historian Tony Kushner has written in an essay on the links between austerity and the 1947 riots, a popular stereotype persisted of Jews as “black marketeers gaining from the war but not contributing to the effort”. The extension of rationing kept the stereotype alive. Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary, had made remarks about the Jews of Europe “pushing to the front of the queue” and during the fuel crisis he made a quip about “Israelites”, insinuating that Jewish black marketeers were hoarding fuel. Worse still, Jewish loyalty over Palestine was being questioned openly. In the opening days of 1947 the Sunday Times had addressed an editorial “to British Jews” in which the paper accused them of failing to perform their “civic duty and moral obligations” by denouncing the anti-British violence in Palestine.

In Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, where the worst rioting took place, the downturn was at its most painful. These cities had the highest levels of unemployment in Britain and even though the disturbances initially targeted the Jews they quickly progressed to generalised looting. “Get the Jews, get the stuff and get into the shops,” was one shout heard in Manchester. Not for the first (or last) time, racism and economic exclusion combined and formed a poisonous resentment.

Levitas had been part of the crowd that faced down Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts on Cable Street in the East End in October 1936. Like many trade unionists, he was alarmed at the resurgence of violence. “There was a feeling that we’d just had a war against fascism, and that we’d got to ensure that the fascists didn’t do again what they did in the Thirties.”

Although the violence in 1947 was not orchestrated by fascist political parties, it emboldened the remaining adherents. Jeffrey Hamm, a former member of the British Union of Fascists who was now in charge of the League of Ex-Servicemen, visited the north-west of England and attempted to stir up trouble. Fascists displayed copies of the Daily Express’s “hanging sergeants” front page at their meetings. And in 1948 Oswald Mosley, who had been interned in Holloway Prison during the war, launched a new party, the Union Movement.

At the end of the war, 43 Jewish ex-servicemen had set up a clandestine group to infiltrate fascist meetings and break up their opponents’ rallies by fighting in the street. The 43 Group was the first of several such organisations. Levitas believes that one reason the fascists were kept at bay, and why east London stayed relatively calm through the late 1940s, is that the lessons of the 1930s had been learned.

“Only through the integration of society could we play a major part in stopping racism,” he told me. For him, this “integration” went beyond anti-fascist protest; it involved “people demanding for themselves jobs, housing and education for their kids. To ensure that whatever religion you’ve got, whatever your colour, you play a part in society.”

“National disgrace”

On 5 August, four days after its sensationalised coverage had triggered the riots, the Express appealed for calm. “No more of this!” it implored readers, arguing that the attacks on innocent shopkeepers had become a national disgrace. In Manchester, the violence had subsided, leaving an ugly atmosphere. “For the rest of the week,” Lever recalled, “one overheard behind one in the bus, over one’s shoulder at the next café table, a row ahead in the cinema, whispering anecdotes and muttered abuse relating to the events of the Sunday night.”

A dividing line had been drawn through daily life where none appeared to exist before. Rachel Barash, who had worked for the Jewish “hospitality committee” that brought refugee children over from Germany and the Netherlands during the 1930s, remembered how the riots sparked a “nasty” stand-off between boys from rival youth clubs. Until that point, the refugees, who were housed in the suburban village of Withington, had been welcomed and treated as “our children” by their neighbours. Now Jewish boys across Manchester gathered together, ready to defend themselves.

Yet the tension dissipated almost as quickly as violence had surged: in the words of another Manchester resident, Agnes Sussman, “It all passed over as if nothing had happened.” Today, there is little mention of the riots in the official histories. There are only a couple of academic essays beyond Kushner's study, and the violence in Liverpool forms a backdrop to the play Three Sisters on Hope Street, the 2008 retelling of Chekhov by Diane Samuels and Tracy-Ann Oberman. Elsewhere, they are viewed as an insignificant footnote to the story of the creation of the state of Israel.

Why have the riots been forgotten? According to Dave Rich, deputy director of communications at the Community Security Trust, a charity established in 1994 to ensure the “safety and security” of British Jews, one reason was that there were much bigger things to worry about then. The full horrors of the Holocaust were still coming to light; efforts to establish the state of Israel were ongoing; and in Britain, for Zionist and non-Zionist Jews alike, there were more pressing economic concerns. “Given that few people were actually hurt in the riots,” Rich says, “it’s understandable that, in the wider picture of what is on the mind of Jews at that time, it would very quickly get relegated.”

British politicians, too, were keen to sweep things under the carpet. James Chuter Ede, the postwar home secretary, dismissed the rioting as mere “hooliganism . . . rather than an indication of public feeling”, while magistrates condemned rioters as “un-British” and “unpatriotic”. Nations need their feel-good stories and as Rich points out, “The thought that those popular anti-Jewish riots could happen two years after the Holocaust in Britain . . . runs counter to the anti-fascist mythology of Britain’s role in the war. Who wants to go digging that up?”

Yet the riots were neither an aberration nor the product of an unruly working class. Britain was experiencing an identity crisis: it had won the war but appeared to be losing the peace, with recession at home and the break-up of its empire abroad, in which the events in Mandate Palestine played only a small part. As colonised peoples increasingly demanded independence, Britain turned to a more inward-looking nationalism. Along with it came the question of who would be included and who would be left out.

In 1948, with cross-party support, the Labour government passed the British Nationality Act, marking a shift from a situation where all those living in the empire – in theory, although quite evidently not in practice – were equal subjects under the Crown to one where each country in the Commonwealth could determine its own version of citizenship. Although in the years to come it would be non-white immigrants from the Commonwealth who would most strongly challenge received notions of Englishness and Britishness and who would bear the brunt of racism, Jews, too, were caught up in this, for a brief period.

There is one other reason why this episode is worth remembering. On the face of it, there are striking similarities with the way modern Britain has responded to Islamist-inspired terror. Now, as then, events in the Middle East have violent repercussions on Britain’s streets. Home-grown terrorists have set off bombs in London; tabloid newspapers give sensationalist coverage to attacks on “our boys” fighting abroad and question the loyalty of British people of a different faith, this time Muslims. This in turn has provoked an angry backlash in the form of the far-right English Defence League.

At the same time, “integration” is a demand made of outsiders to adopt “our” values, to become more like us. In doing so, some of today’s integrationists hold up British Jews as a kind of “model community”. In 2006 at a ceremony to commemorate the 350th anniversary of Crom­well’s readmission of the Jews into England, Tony Blair told a congregation at Bevis Marks Synagogue: “As the oldest minority faith community in this country, you show how identity through faith can be combined with a deep loyalty to our nation.” Less was said about how we arrived at this point.

Yet it is best to see the events of 1947 as the end of a chapter rather than the beginning of one. A year later, the state of Israel was formed and Chaim Weizmann, who had lived and worked in Manchester, was appointed as its first president. Britain’s duplicitous conduct towards Jews and Arabs since it had taken control of Palestine in 1920, the dispossession of the Palestinians and the nasty guerrilla war were events that it suited both sides to pretend had never happened. Relations were soon “normalised” and nobody cared to recall the brief moment when the messy end to a colonial misadventure was played out on British streets.

Today Cheetham Hill, the old Jewish quarter of Manchester, is home to people of many faiths and none. Most of the old buildings were knocked down in the 1970s and one ornate former synagogue is now a clothing warehouse, its stained-glass Star of David window cracked and boarded up. But this is no cause for mourning; many Jews simply moved further up the road, taking their places of worship with them. At least 35,000 still live in Manchester, which has the largest Jewish population in the UK outside London. The “sergeants affair” is a fading memory, snatches of which are preserved on a handful of reel-to-reel recordings in local history archives. Yet somewhere amid the ghostly swirl of recollections, a painful irony remains: one of the murdered soldiers, Clifford Martin, was Jewish.

Thanks to the Manchester Jewish Museum

Tony Kushner's essay "Anti-Semitism and austerity: the August 1947 riots in Britain" is published in Panikos Panayi (ed.), "Racial Violence in Britain in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries" (Leicester University Press, 1996)

Daniel Trilling’s “Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right” will be published by Verso in September. Follow him on Twitter @trillingual

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?

Credit: BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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A century ago, the Spanish flu killed 100 million people. Is a new pandemic on the way?

Our leaders need to act like the outbreak has already started – because for all we know it may have.

It is hard not to have a sneaking envy of the virus. As complex creatures, we are distracted by myriad demands on our attention; we will never know the dead-eyed focus of the viral world. It is akin to the psychopath: a cold, purposeful drive to achieve its own agenda, coupled with the skills and resourcefulness to succeed. In a world threatened by nuclear war and devastating climate change, it may actually be the virus that we should fear most.

This is the centenary year of the Spanish flu outbreak, when a virus killed between 50 and 100 million people in a matter of months. The devastation was worldwide; it is only known as Spanish flu because Spain, neutral in the ongoing hostilities of World War One, was the only country without press restrictions. Across Europe, people assumed their own outbreaks originated in the only place reporting on the disaster.

A number of authors have lined up with a kind of grim celebration of influenza’s annus mirabilis. As well as chronicling the fatal reach of this organism, they all offer a warning about a follow-up pandemic that is overdue – and for which, it seems, we are largely unprepared. “Somewhere out there a dangerous virus is boiling up in the bloodstream of a bird, bat, monkey, or pig, preparing to jump to a human being,” says Jonathan Quick in The End of Epidemics. “It has the potential to wipe out millions of us, including my family and yours, over a matter of weeks or months.”

If that seems a little shlocky, you should know that Quick is no quack. He is a former director at the WHO, the current chair of the Global Health Council and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School. The book’s blurb includes endorsements from the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the president of Médicins Sans Frontières, and the president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

The numbers Quick serves up are stupefying. Bill Gates, for instance, has said it is more likely than not that he will live to see a viral outbreak kill over 10 million people in a year. In Gates’s nightmare scenario, outlined by computer simulations created with disease-modelling experts, 33 million people die within 200 days of the first human infection. The potential for exponential spread means a death toll of 300 million is possible in the first year. “We would be in a world where scrappy, ravaged survivors struggle for life in a zombie-movie wasteland,” Quick tells us in his informed, cogent and – honestly – frightening book.

If you can’t imagine what that is like, you could try asking the Yupik people of Alaska, who were devastated by the 1918 Spanish flu. You might not get an answer, however, because they remain traumatised, and have made a pact not to speak about the pandemic that shattered their ancient culture.  (A pandemic is a disease that spreads across continents; an epidemic is usually contained within a country or continent.)They aren’t the only long-term sufferers. The Vanuatu archipelago suffered 90 per cent mortality and 20 of its local languages went extinct. Those in the womb in 1918 were also affected. A baby born in 1919 “was less likely to graduate and earn a reasonable wage, and more likely to go to prison, claim disability benefit, and suffer from heart disease,” reports Laura Spinney in Pale Rider.

Such arresting snippets of the flu’s legacy abound in Spinney’s thoughtful, coherent take on the 1918 outbreak. The book’s subtitle suggests that the Spanish flu changed the world, and Spinney certainly backs this up. Societies broke down and had to be rebuilt; recovering populations were reinvigorated by the simple calculus of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”; public health provisions were first imagined and then brought into reality; artists and writers responded to a new global mood by establishing new movements.

Not every outcome could be spun as a positive. Scientists, for instance, were humiliated by their inability to halt the flu’s progress, creating an opportunity for quack medicines to arise and establish themselves. Some of our greatest writers lived through the trauma, but could never bring themselves to discuss it in their stories. Virginia Woolf noted that it was “strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature”.

Spinney’s background as a science writer shines through: her handling of the workings of the flu is detailed and deft. She brings both the influenza A virus (the only type responsible for pandemics) and the human immune system to life, laying out the biochemical processes that kill and cure with clarity and care. She exposes the chilling roots of often-used but seldom-explained viral names such as “H1N1” (Spanish flu) or “H5N1” (bird flu). H is for haemagglutinin, the lollipop-shaped appendage that allows a virus to break into a cell and take over the means of production. N is for neuraminidase, the “glass-cutter” structure that allows replicated viruses to break out again and unleash hell upon the host. So far, we know of 18 H’s and 11 N’s and they all have ever-evolving sub-types that make a long-lasting general vaccine against the flu an elusive dream: “Every flu pandemic of the 20th century was triggered by the emergence of a new H in influenza A,” says Spinney.

For all her technical expertise, Spinney has a light touch and a keen eye for the comic. She relates how a ferret sneezing in the face of a British researcher in 1933 exposed influenza’s ability to travel between biological species, for instance. She also excels with the bigger picture, detailing the century of scientific detective work that has allowed us to piece together the genetic elements of the 1918 virus and gain insights into its creation. It seems to have jumped to humans on a farm in Kansas, via domestic and wild birds indigenous to North America. There may also have been some ingredients from pigs, too, but that’s not settled.

Spinney’s afterword questions whether our collective memory for such events ever reflects the truth of the moment. “When the story of the Spanish flu was told, it was told by those who got off most lightly: the white and well off,” she tells us. “With very few exceptions, the ones who bore the brunt of it, those living in ghettoes or at the rim, have yet to tell their tale. Some, such as the minorities whose languages died with them, never will.”

That said, Catharine Arnold has done a remarkable job of relating the tales of a diverse set of sufferers, crafting an arresting and intimate narrative of the 1918 pandemic. She pulls the accounts of hundreds of victims into a gripping tale that swoops down into the grisly detail, then soars up to give a broad view over the landscape of this calamitous moment in human history.

Arnold’s remembrances come from the unknown and from celebrities. A Margery Porter from south London emphasised that “we just couldn’t stand up. Your legs actually gave way, I can’t exaggerate that too much.” John Steinbeck described the experience of infection as almost spiritual. “I went down and down,” he said, “until the wingtips of angels brushed my eyes.”

The reality was, inevitably, less poetic. A local surgeon removed one of Steinbeck’s ribs so that he could gain access to the author’s infected lung. Most victims’ bodies turned blue-black as they died. Healthcare workers reported appalling scenes, with delirious patients suffering horrific nosebleeds. “Sometimes the blood would just shoot across the room,” a navy nurse recalled. If their lungs punctured, the patients’ bodies would fill with air. “You would feel somebody and he would be bubbles… When their lungs collapsed, air was trapped beneath their skin. As we rolled the dead in winding sheets, their bodies crackled – an awful crackling noise with sounded like Rice Krispies when you pour milk over them.”

The killer in 1918 was often not the flu virus itself but the “cytokine storm” of an immune system overreacting to the infection. Strong, fit young people, with their efficient immune systems, were thus particularly at risk, their bodies effectively shutting themselves down. Then there were the ravages of opportunistic bacteria that would lodge in the devastated tissue, causing pneumonia and other fatal complications. Arnold paints a grim but vivid picture of exhausted gravediggers and opportunistic funeral directors cannily upping their prices. The morgues were overflowing, and morticians worked day and night. In the end, mass graves were the only answer for the poverty-stricken workers attempting to bury their loved ones before they, too, succumbed.

No one was spared from grief or suffering at the hands of the “Spanish Lady”, as the flu came to be known. Louis Brownlow, the city commissioner for Washington DC, reported nursing his stricken wife while answering telephone calls from desperate citizens. One woman called to say that of the three girls she shared a room with, two had died, and the third was on her way out. Brownlow sent a police officer to the house. A few hours later, the sergeant reported back from the scene: “Four girls dead.”

Some of the other stories Arnold has unearthed are equally heartbreaking. A Brooklyn boy called Michael Wind wrote of the moment his mother died after less than a day of being ill. He and his five siblings were at her bedside, as was their father, “head in hands, sobbing bitterly”. The following morning, knowing that he was soon to die too, their father took the three youngest children to the orphanage.

Arnold writes beautifully, and starkly, of the tragedy that unfolded in the autumn months of 1918: “the Spanish Lady played out her death march, killing without compunction. She did not discriminate between statesmen, painters, soldiers, poets, writers or brides.” She chronicles the Lady’s path from the United States and Canada through Europe, Africa and Asia, culminating in New Zealand’s “Black November”. The book is utterly absorbing. But how do we respond to its horrors and tragedies? What are we to do with our collective memories of such visceral, world-shattering events? Learn from them – and fast, argues Jonathan Quick.

Unlike Arnold and Spinney, Quick is not content to be a chronicler or a bystander. He is, he says, both terrified at the looming disaster and furious at the lack of high-level reaction to its threat. He is determined to create a movement that will instigate change, mimicking the way activists forced change from governments paralysed by, and pharmaceutical companies profiteering from, the Aids pandemic. Quick has channelled his fury: The End of Epidemics is, at heart, a call to arms against influenza, Ebola, Zika and the many other threats before us.

 

So what are we to do? First, our leaders need to act like the outbreak has already started – because for all we know it may have. We must strengthen our public health systems, and create robust agencies and NGOs ready to monitor and deal with the threat. We must educate citizens and implement surveillance, prevention and response mechanisms, while fighting misinformation and scaremongering. Governments must step up (and fund) research.

We can’t develop a vaccine until the threat is manifest, but we can prepare technology for fast large-scale production. We can also invest in methods of early diagnoses and virus identification. Invest $1 per person per year for 20 years and the threat will be largely neutralised, Quick suggests. Finally – and most importantly – there is an urgent need to create grass-roots support for these measures: citizen groups and other organisations that will hold their leaders to account and prevent death on a scale that no one alive has ever experienced. Is this achievable? Traumatised readers of Quick’s book will be left hoping that it is.

For all the advances of the last century, there are many unknowns. Scientists don’t know, for instance, which microbe will bring the next pandemic, where it will come from, or whether it will be transmitted through the air, by touch, through body fluids or through a combination of routes.

While there is considerable attention focused on communities in West Africa, East Asia or South America as the most likely source of the next outbreak, it’s worth remembering that most scientists now believe the 1918 influenza outbreak began on a farm in Kansas. Quick suggests the
next pandemic might have a similar geographical origin, thanks to the industrialised livestock facilities beloved by American food giants.

Viruses naturally mutate and evolve rapidly, taking up stray bits of genetic material wherever they can be found. But it’s the various flu strains that live inside animals that bring sleepless nights to those in the know. They can exist inside a pig, bat or chicken without provoking symptoms, but prove devastating if (when) they make the jump to humans. As more and more humans live in close proximity to domesticated animals, encroach on the territories inhabited by wild animals, and grow their food on unprecedented scales, our chance of an uncontrollable epidemic increase.

The meat factories known as “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” (CAFOs) are particularly problematic. They provide cheap meat, poultry, dairy and
eggs from animals kept in what Quick terms “concentration camp conditions”, simultaneously creating the perfect breeding ground for new and dangerous pathogens. Pigs, he points out, eat almost everything, so their guts are the perfect mixing bowls for a new and deadly influenza strain. “CAFOs were the birthplace of swine flu, and they could very likely be the birthplace of the next killer pandemic,” Quick warns.

There are other possibilities, though – bioterror, for instance. Bill Gates is among
those who have warned that terrorist groups are looking into the possibility of releasing the smallpox virus in a crowded market, or on a plane. Then there is the possibility of a scientist’s mistake. In 1978 a woman died after smallpox was released from a laboratory at the University of Birmingham, UK. In 2004 two Chinese researchers accidentally infected themselves with the SARS virus and spread it to seven other people, one of whom died. In 2014, a cardboard box full of forgotten vials of smallpox was found in a National Institutes of Health facility in Bethesda, Maryland. A year later, the US military accidentally shipped live anthrax spores to labs in the US and a military base in South Korea. It’s not impossible that human error could strike again – with catastrophic results.

Such possibilities lie behind our discomfort with what scientists have to do to further our understanding. Researchers in Rotterdam, for instance, wanted to know whether the deadly H5N1 bird flu could develop a capacity for airborne transmission like the common cold virus. Having failed to modify its genetics to achieve this, they began to pass an infection between ferrets, the animals whose response to the virus most mimics that of humans. Ten ferrets later, healthy animals were catching the virus from the cage next door. Knowing how easily H5N1 can become airborne is exactly the kind of discovery that will bolster our vigilance. It is, after all, many times more fatal than the H1N1 strain that caused the Spanish flu. At the same time, there was a huge – but understandable –
furore over whether the research should
be published, and thus be available to potential bioterrorists.

We might have to live with such dilemmas, because it is important to be ready to challenge the killer virus when it arrives. As we have seen with Aids and the common cold, developing vaccines takes time, and there is no guarantee of success, even with a concerted research effort.

****

Will we be ready? Quick suggests that our best chance lies in the world’s business leaders realising what’s at stake: economies would be devastated by the next pandemic. In 1918, Arnold points out, the British government was telling citizens it was their patriotic duty to “carry on” and make sure the wheels of industry kept turning. The result was a perfect environment for mass infection. Political leaders made similar mistakes across the Atlantic: on 12 October President Wilson led a gathering of 25,000 New Yorkers down the “Avenue of the Allies”. “That same week,” Arnold reports, “2,100 New Yorkers died of influenza.”

It’s worth noting that Spanish flu did not abate because we outsmarted it. The pandemic ended because the virus ran out of people it could infect. Of those who didn’t die, some survived through a chance natural immunity, and some were lucky enough to have maintained a physical separation from those carrying the invisible threat. The virus simply failed to kill the rest, enabling their bodies to develop the antibodies required to repel a further attack. A generation or two later, when the antibody-equipped immune systems were in the grave, and humans were immunologically vulnerable (and complacent) once again, H1N1 virus re-emerged, causing the 2009 swine flu outbreak.

As these books make clear, this is a history that could repeat all too easily in our time. Of the three, Pale Rider is perhaps the most satisfying. It has greater complexity and nuance than Arnold’s collection of harrowing tales, fascinating though they are. Spinney’s analysis is more circumspect and thus less paralysing than Quick’s masterful exposition of our precarious situation. But the truth is we need all these perspectives, and probably more, if we are to avoid sleepwalking into the next pandemic. Unlike our nemesis, humans lack focus – and it could be our undoing. 

Michael Brooks’s most recent book is “The Quantum Astrologer’s Handbook” (Scribe)

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World
Laura Spinney
Vintage, 352pp, £25

Pandemic 1918: The Story of the Deadliest Influenza in History
Catharine Arnold
Michael O’Mara, 368pp, £20

The End of Epidemics
Jonathan D Quick with Bronwyn Fryer
Scribe, 288pp, £14.99

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?