Paris, May 1968, after a night of fighting between students and riot police. CREDIT: BRUNO BARBEY/ MAGNUM PHOTOS
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The protesters of 1968 changed the world – but not in the way they hoped

In some ways, the revolutionaries of 1968 helped capitalism flourish.

When I attended the mass demonstration against the Vietnam War in London in October 1968, what most impressed me was the sedateness of the occasion. Among the demonstrators there was concern about the police horses. An anarchist fringe was rumoured to be planning to throw ball bearings under their hooves, a tactic many – including myself – deplored. The police were mostly restrained, many seeming chiefly concerned to avoid trouble. A section of the demonstrators led by a Maoist faction broke off and moved on to Grosvenor Square, where they attempted to break through police cordons guarding the American embassy. There had been a violent clash with police in an earlier demonstration in March, but after some hours of scuffles and a handful of arrests this confrontation fizzled out.

The body of the march continued as planned, handing in a petition at 10 Downing Street and proceeding to Hyde Park, where speeches were made demanding an immediate end to a war that would drag on until the fall of Saigon nearly seven years later. The home secretary of the day – the future Labour prime minister, James Callaghan – visited Grosvenor Square in the evening to watch it being cleared. Callaghan praised the demonstrators and the police, commenting that a demonstration of this kind would not have gone off so peacefully in any other part of the world.

The impression I formed during the demonstration has endured throughout the half-century that followed. In this country, 1968 was no more than a moment in the long history of a singularly British system. The atmosphere of the period is well conveyed by one of the photographs that precede each of the chapters of Richard Vinen’s deeply researched, richly detailed and thoroughly absorbing book, showing a youthful Jack Straw, president of the students’ union at Leeds, dancing stiffly with the Duchess of Kent, chancellor of the university. As Vinen puts it: “Britain was an ancien régime with a hereditary monarch, an established Church and an unelected upper house of parliament that was composed in large measure of those that had been born into the aristocracy… Nowhere was the ancien régime more deeply embedded than in universities.”

He continues:

In 1967, reform at Oxford University was discussed by the Privy Council – the group that formally existed to advise the Queen. Some academic positions were chosen directly by the monarch – in practice, by the prime minister’s appointment secretary after having taken appropriate “soundings”. One of these appointments – RA Butler, the master of Trinity College, Cambridge – was a former Conservative home secretary. Another was General Sir John Hackett, a former paratrooper… 
Both Butler and Hackett proved to be sympathetic to student demands…  Hackett, wearing his homburg hat and regimental tie, was famously to lead a student demonstration in 1974.

The historian Gareth Stedman Jones, who spent ten months in Paris after leaving St Paul’s School, is quoted as expressing a parallel view:

I went up to Oxford in 1961, smoking Gitanes and immaculately dressed in the best that could be found on the rive gauche. My time in France reinforced my sense, shared by many of my friends in the early 1960s, of Britain as some sort of ancien régime presided over by hereditary power and still clinging to the decrepit trappings of Edwardian gentility.

In many ways Britain was still an Edwardian country. Power was dispersed in self-governing institutions that worked by an unwritten, sometimes unspoken consensus. But these institutions operated in a society that was deeply hierarchical, and this was reflected in the protest move-ments of the time. A host of new Marxist organisations emerged from the late Sixties onwards, but they included very few industrial workers. According to Vinen, the security services estimated that among quarter of a million miners in 1980 there were 15 members of the Militant Tendency, nine members of the Socialist Workers Party and five members of the International Marxist Group. There were fewer Trotskyists in the most important British trade union than at North London Polytechnic. With a few exceptions, revolution was a middle-class avocation.

Gender relations in protest movements mirrored those in society. At the beginning of the Sixties, 593 women were admitted to Oxford and Cambridge as against 4,002 men. Similarly, in a book of 12 essays on student power published in 1969, 11 were by men. While the “Third World” was on everyone’s lips, the politics of race played a minor role. Protest was directed against white minority government in South Africa and Rhodesia and anti-immigrant Conservatives, above all Enoch Powell. There were few signs of the current insistence on the overriding importance of ethnic identity.

 Defining “the long 68” in terms of “the variety of movements that became associated with, and sometimes reached their climax in, 1968 but that cannot be understood with exclusive reference to that year”, Vinen writes:

It had several components: generational rebellion of the young against the old, political rebellion against militarism, capitalism and the political power of the United States, and cultural rebellion that revolved around rock music and lifestyle. These rebellions sometimes interacted, but they did not always do so. Sixty-eight often subverted or circumvented existing structures… Sometimes, it seemed that 68 subverted itself and that the movements of the early 1970s –women’s liberation, gay liberation and some of the organisations devoted to armed struggle – were rebellions against, as well as continuations of, aspects of 68.

Sixty-eight was all of these things, and none of them entirely. Certainly it was not merely a generational protest. For one thing, by no means all of the protestors were old. In a celebrated incident, a student demonstrator at Berkeley in 1964 shouted, “Don‘t trust anyone over 30.” But Tom Hayden, the student activist who drafted the 1962 Port Huron statement that signalled the start of the campus rebellion, was 29 years old in 1968. Among the leaders of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), which Hayden helped found, those born after the Second World War were a minority even in the late Sixties. One of the leaders of anti-Vietnam Americans in Paris, Maria Jolas – scion of a wealthy Kentucky family, who for a time occupied the house in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises that became the home of General de Gaulle – was born in 1893. In Britain, one of the most vocal protesters against the Vietnam war was Lady Dorothea Head, daughter of the Earl of Shaftesbury and wife of a Tory politician, who was born in 1907.

A remark made by de Gaulle in 1966, when asked to comment on a report on “youth”, summed up the limitations of a purely generational analysis. “One must not treat the young as a separate category”, the General observed. “One is young and then one ceases to be so.” François Mitterrand made a similar point when he told a student group in 1968, “Being young doesn’t last very long. You spend a lot more time being old.” Student bodies were not uniformly left-wing in any traditional sense. Among the 88 per cent of 490 students beginning their studies at the University of Essex in 1968, only one per cent described themselves as “left Labour” and a further one per cent as “centre Labour”. The number who identified themselves as “Powellites” was the same as those who identified themselves as Labour. At the same time, 26 per cent saw themselves as “non-party moderate left”, five per cent as “non-party extreme left” and four per cent as anarchists. Rather than expressing a generational divide, 1968 represented a break with the Old Left, which for many protestors in France and America had become too involved in cold war struggles and, particularly in the US, too closely aligned with trade unions.

 Links between student radicalism and youth culture were real enough, but can easily be exaggerated. Jean-Luc Godard, at the time going through a Maoist phase, filmed the Rolling Stones recording “Sympathy for the Devil” in 1968, but there is no reason to suppose they shared Godard’s views. As Vinen notes, when the Stones moved to France it was not in order join the Gauche prolétarienne but to escape the Inland Revenue. A more genuine connection with political radicalism existed in the folk music of the Fifties.

This does not mean 68ers were not inspired by popular culture. Among those who turned later to more explicitly insurrectionary strategies, cinematic portrayals of violence were a significant influence. A former member of the Red Brigades confessed that he was initiated into political violence by watching films, “especially American cinema where people do not die for real”. In Britain the Angry Brigade signed some of its pronouncements, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. The favourite film of Andreas Baader, one of the founding figures in the terrorist Red Army Faction (also called the Baader-Meinhof Group), was Sergio’s Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

Many who had been radicalised in the late Sixties were influenced by crime fiction, and some turned to writing it. The communist activist and writer of detective stories Dominique Manotti believed that May 68 was “the founding event” for authors like herself. The Swedish writer Stieg Larsson, author of the best-selling The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was a 68er at the age of 14, and six years later joined a Trotskyist group.

***

Only small numbers of 68ers were drawn to violence, and here the differences between the four 68s Vinen examines – American, French, British and West German – are important. Germany, where the left made much of the horrific legacy of Nazism, was also the country where segments of the far left veered to the far right. When a synagogue was bombed on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, Vinen reports, one of the radical left groups produced a pamphlet called “Shalom and Napalm”. Others suggested that the supposed capitalist traits of Jews made them partly responsible for their fate under Nazism. The lawyer Horst Mahler, a founder member of the Red Army Faction who later joined the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party, was convicted of Holocaust denial and spent several years in prison, returning to gaol when, after fleeing to Hungary, he was deported back to Germany.

In the US, violence had mainly been directed against property by the Weather Underground and seems to have been used mostly for defensive purposes by the Black Panthers. It started to subside when Nixon began to extricate the US from Vietnam.

In France it did not take long before revolutionaries became respectable political figures. Régis Debray was able to shelter Baader and Meinhof in his Paris apartment when they were on the run because he knew his political connections would protect them from police raids. By 1981, Debray had an office in the Élysée Palace as an adviser to President Mitterrand.

Aside from armed struggles in Northern Ireland and terrorist attacks by the Provisional IRA on the mainland, radical politics ceased to be linked with violence in Britain when the Angry Brigade, probably never a very cohesive force, faded from view in the early Seventies.

***

The 68ers played little part in the industrial conflicts of the Seventies and Eighties. Sixty-eight had a more lasting legacy in the Nineties, when former 68ers – Joschka Fischer, Bill Clinton and Jack Straw, among others – held high political office as avowed reformists. Significantly, none of the 68ers produced anything like a systematic critique of the economic system they rejected. The closest approximations were Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life and Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, both of which appeared in 1967. Oddly, Vinen does not discuss either of these books, although they were widely read in France, Britain and the US at the time.

The two thinkers were distinctive in noting how movements formed in opposition to capitalism were eventually absorbed by it. Ironically, this was nowhere more true than in the case of their own short-lived Situationist movement, which had its most enduring influence in the worlds of fashion and advertising.

In some ways the 68ers helped capitalism overcome its cultural contradictions. “If it was to survive,” Vinen observes, “capitalism needed to produce consumers as much as producers.” The hedonistic lifestyle of the late Sixties produced consumers in large numbers. Vinen cautions that, “One can make too much of soixante-huitard capitalism.” Few of those that had been anti-capitalist in 1968 went on to embrace capitalism in any positive manner. But a cult of individuality, which co-existed among many 68ers with a theoretical admiration for collectivist economics, played a definite part in opening the way to Thatcher and Reagan.

As Vinen points out, the term “68” was not much used in 1968. Many revolution-aries assumed the year was only a prelude to an enormous social upheaval. In one sense, this proved to be the case. In the decades that followed, society was radically transformed in ways the 68ers had not imagined. Capitalism spread throughout the world and extended its reach into every corner of society. In Britain, the archaic self-governing universities against which students and their sympathisers in the faculty had revolted became subservient to market imperatives and government directives. Everywhere, the middle classes became more insecure even as their incomes increased.

A revolution had come to pass, but not the one the 68ers expected. Most went on to spend the rest of their days struggling to maintain a bourgeois way of life that in 1968 they had taken for granted and rejected. 

John Gray’s “Seven Types of Atheism” is published by Allen Lane on 26 April

The Long ’68: Radical Protest and its Enemies
Richard Vinen
Allen Lane, 446pp, £20

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

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 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special