Daphne and Niles. Photo: Getty
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Martin Crane’s hideous chair was the true star of Frasier

Why is Frasier such a great comedy? Not because of barbed one-liners or high farce, but because it had a heart.

I’m surprised to find myself writing about Frasier, because Friends was the great behemoth of my teenage years, winkling its speech patterns and preoccupations deep into my subconscious, and I date the end of my youth to the day I met Real Live Matthew Perry.

But what was the theme of Friends  -  what wisdom did it have to impart? Only that . . .  it's nice to have friends in your twenties? And a nice apartment. (And Ross is a monster.) By contrast, Frasier has a proper emotional core, woven through the story from the beginning. It is about what happens when you move social classes. What you gain, and what you lose.

That message is clear from the pilot episode, which begins with Frasier Crane returning from the Boston of Cheers to his hometown of Seattle. The episode is structured quite simply, introducing each of the other characters in turn.

First: Niles, who is fastidious - wiping his seat down with a handkerchief in Cafe Nervosa - and trapped in an obviously loveless, sexless marriage with Maris. (Frasier: "Maris is like the sun. Except without the warmth.")

He tells his older brother that it's time to consider putting their father in a retirement home; after being shot in the hip, Martin isn't recovering well, and was recently found in the floor of his bathroom. The episode is called "The Good Son", and that's what Frasier struggles to be. 

So he invites Martin to live with him, and it's particularly tough because this iteration of his dad is far grumpier than later ones - sitcom characters are not really supposed to change, but Martin grows into an adorable grump. But at the start, he's unhappy with where life has taken him. He doesn't want to be dependent, and that makes him mean.

Martin: Let's cut the "Welcome To Camp Crane" speech. We all know why I'm here. Your old man can't be left alone for ten minutes without falling on his ass, and Frasier got stuck with me. Isn't that right?

Martin arrives trailing two horrors - his battered, vomit-green striped armchair and Eddie the Dog, who spends most of the first season staring balefully at Frasier. (Sad fact: Moose the Dog had to retire from the show on health grounds in the eighth season; his role was taken by his son Enzo.)

That armchair is the single most meaningful object in the whole of 1990s comedy. The producers had spent a fortune decorating the apartment (around $500,000) and there are several references to an Eames chair which Frasier loves, which you can see on the landing to Frasier's right in the picture below. What gets pride of place in his living room instead, however, is the nastiest chair ever designed. It's so hideous because it was specially made by the props department, using an offcut of original 1970s fabric. 

But here's the thing: doesn't that chair look more comfortable to sit on than the expensive suede couch - "an exact replica of the one Coco Chanel had in her Paris atelier"? This is a metaphor for how family relationships are battered, worn and cosy rather than beautifully best-china pristine, and it's a damn sight more subtle than Ross getting a monkey as a baby-substitute.

In the next segment, we meet Daphne. Frasier and Martin have spent all day seeing physical therapists, but Martin doesn't like any of them. Frasier suspects he's just being difficult.

Then Daphne walks in, with a "Manchester" accent that everyone involved must have known was ludicrous, surely? (John Mahoney, who plays Martin, was born and grew up in Lancashire.) But what gets her the job is her praise for the chair. 

Frasier: Er, have a seat, Miss Moon.
Daphne: Daphne. Thank you. Oh, will you look at that. What a comfy chair! It's like I always say, start with a good piece and replace the rest when you can afford it.

Martin beams, Frasier is horrified. But there is now balance in the force of Frasierworld: him and Niles, the chair-haters, versus Marty and Daphne, the chair-lovers. (As far as I can tell, Roz is agnostic on the chair.) The chair is a test of your values: do you value substance over appearance?

In the next segment, the resentment which has been bubbling between Martin and his son boils over. They both confess that their lives haven't turned out how they wanted: Marty didn't want to be disabled; Frasier didn't want to have his dream of a contemplative life interrupted by an obsessive dog and hours of sports broadcasting. 

Frasier: I don't want to adjust! I've done enough adjusting! I'm in a new city, I've got a new job, I'm separated from my little boy, which in itself is enough to drive me nuts. And now my father and his dog are living with me! Well, that's enough on my plate, thank you. The whole idea of getting somebody in here was to help ease my burden, not to add to it!

As in any real family, Marty immediately picks up on the key word here - burden. The argument escalates, with Frasier saying that all he wants is a thank you. Martin hesitates, but won't give him one. Instead, he storms off. 

The next day, Roz tells Frasier the story of Lupe Velez, a starlet who tried to have a "lavish suicide" and ended up falling over and braining herself on a toilet. She delivers the line which becomes Frasier's mission statement: "Even though things may not happen like we planned, they can work out anyway." The episode ends with Martin calling in to the radio show, apologising - and then shouting again: "Did you hear what I said? I said THANK YOU."

This is an incredible - and award-winning - pilot episode (read the full script here) in terms of setting up the characters, the conflict and the central theme. One of the things I find most jaw-dropping about Frasier is that a typical episode lasts 23 minutes - a half-hour minus the absurdity of American ad breaks. But that's also a lesson in what good writers do, which is look at the formal limitations they have to work with, and make those conventions work for them instead. 

***

When I surveyed Twitter for people's favourite episodes of Frasier, the classic farces were mentioned again and again: The Ski Lodge, Ham Radio, The Seal Who Came To Dinner. But Frasier wouldn't have been the huge critical success it was if it had just been rich white guys exchanging barbs about opera and running in and out of bedrooms.

Like Stephen's choice of 1990s comedy this week, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, it connects because it's an old-fashioned sitcom about a family, and about class. Frasier and Niles have escaped the world their father lived in - a blue-collar job, beer in front of the football in your lazy-boy chair, a boringly happy marriage - but at a cost. Their father can't understand their lives or their values, and both sides feel loved and judged. Frasier worries his dad thinks he's a snob; his dad worries Frasier thinks he's a philistine. Both of them take refuge in exaggerating these personas - which works for comic reasons, but is also believable as a gesture of defiance.

In the first series, this theme is particularly strong. In "Dinner at Eight", Frasier and Niles want to treat their dad to something nice, but they find it hard to accept that means acknowledging he has his own tastes and isn't content to be the passive recipient of their munificence. 

Niles: Outside of our last name and abnormally well-developed calf muscles, we have nothing in common with the man.  

They want to take him to the Cigale Volante, and there's another exchange which could sum up the conflict of values at the heart of Frasier:

Niles: Oh, oh-oh-oh, the food is to die for!
Martin: Niles, your country and your family are to die for; food is to eat.

After the Cigale Volante loses their reservation, they go to Marty's choice - the Timber Mill, a steakhouse where the waitress cuts off the boys' ties, serves "fixins" and has "five different toppings for your baked potato". Frasier and Niles can't stop themselves being mean about the food, the bacon, the thousand island dressing... until Martin eventually snaps, and delivers one of the harshest take-downs in sitcom history:

Martin: Alright, that's it. I've had enough of you two jack-asses. I've spent the whole night listening to you making cracks about the food and the help. Well, I got news for you: people like this place. I like this place. And when you insult this restaurant, you insult me. You know, I used to think you two took after your mother, liking the ballet and all that, but your mother liked a good ball game too. She even had a hot dog once in a while. She may have had fancy tastes, but she had too much class to ever make me or anybody else feel second-rate. If she saw the way you two have behaved tonight, she'd be ashamed. I know I am.  

Basically, everyone in the Timber Mill who saw the Crane boys acting like this? They voted for Trump. 

***

Ken Levine has admitted that in the later series, the writers got carried away with Frasierisms, resulting in “speeches [that] were filled with little ornamentations and curly-cues”. It's true that there are some very wobbly episodes later on, in which archness and arcane references to classical music are stretched to their very limit. And yes, if we're being all Guardian-thinkpiece about it, Frasier was "problematic". It is hella white, at a time when Seattle’s population was a third black, Asian and Hispanic. Like Girls, it focuses on the lives of upper-middle class city dwellers whose problems are pretty far up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. (One way in which it is notably progressive, particularly compared with Friends, is in its treatment of homosexuality - perhaps unsurprisingly since David Hyde Pierce and one of its best writers, Joe Keenan, are gay.)

But it always had a heart, and that was usually provided by Martin Crane. At the end of season one, there's an episode where The Chair gets thrown out by a dopey workman who is supposed to put it in storage, and Martin is unhappy with the replacement, even though Frasier puts duct tape on it and scatters peanuts around it.

Eventually, Frasier wrings out of him why he wants his old chair back:

Martin: Okay, I'll tell you what chair I want. I want the chair I was sitting in when I watched Neil Armstrong take his first step on the moon. And when the US hockey team beat the Russians in the '80 Olympics. I want the chair I was sitting in the night you called me to tell me I had a grandson. I want the chair I was in all those nights, when your mother used to wake me up with a kiss after I'd fallen asleep in front of the television. You know, I still fall asleep in it. And every once in a while, when I wake up, I still expect your mother to be there, ready to lead me off to bed... Oh, never mind. It's only a chair. Come on, Eddie.

I mean, this is INCREDIBLE. Even more incredibly, it's nestled inside an overtly theatrical sitcom where one episode culminates in a fencing master and the cast making jokes in four languages. And yet, Frasier had the emotional range to include a speech about a father telling his adult sons how much he misses their dead mother.

The subject of the chair comes up again explicitly in season 9, in a sequence about how Martin and Frasier have lived together for eight years. (The segment's title card is "The recline and fall of Western civilisation", which is an A* pun in anybody's money.) The episode shows them bickering in the way another sitcom might show a married couple. Marty spills oil on the chair, and in trying to clean it up, Frasier and Niles set it on fire, then throw it off the balcony. It lands on the pavement in front of Martin and Daphne, irreparably damaged. 

In the final scene of the episode, Martin unveils a "present" to his son - a tasteful black recliner. At which point, the doorbell rings and Frasier ushers in an exact replica of the chair, which he has had made at vast expense.


Daphne: It must have cost a fortune!
Frasier: Yes - ironically, this is now the most expensive piece of furniture in the entire apartment!
Niles: It's beautiful!
Martin: Thank you, son.
Niles: Well done, Frasier.
Martin: Oh, it feels just the same - I don't want to get up!
Frasier: Well, that's a shame, because I was planning on taking us both out to dinner this evening, Dad - anywhere you'd like!
Martin: Even the steakhouse?
Frasier: Even the steakhouse!

Yes, that's right, a steakhouse - it might have taken him nine series, but Frasier has learned to love "fixins". 

***

Here's a gnarly bit of Frasier lore. The same actor who brought in the chair in the first episode takes it out in the final one. The show ends with Martin marrying again, Daphne and Niles having their baby (named David, after series creator David Angell, who died in the first plane to hit the World Trade Center on 9/11) and Frasier going to a new city and leaving behind KACL. That means leaving the apartment, and Martin taking his chair to his new home.

And so, the bonds that held the characters together are broken, and you find yourself dabbing at your eyes over a goddamn hideous chair. Because really, the emotional arc of Frasier is Martin's. He's the child - once dependent, he is now able to leave home and make his own way, leaving Frasier as the Empty Nester. 

And what is Martin's penultimate line as they are all gathered in the apartment together? 

Martin: Thank you, Frasier. For... well, you know.

Yes, it's been eleven years and Marty is, at last, able to say a sincere thank you to his son. Only now, he doesn't need to. They both know they love each other and what their relationship means.

Goodnight, Marty's chair. We love you. And sorry that the actual last scene of the final episode is Frasier reciting a Tennyson poem, which is dreadful. The last shot clearly should have been you. 

 

5 Frasier episodes to watch

Moondance

The most bittersweet of all the Daphne/Niles unrequited love episodes, directed by Kelsey Grammer. Niles is sad that Maris has apparently moved on, while all their former friends think he is lonely and dejected. So when Niles's date for the “Snow Ball” pulls out, Daphne graduates from his informal dance instructor to his partner for the evening. Martin tries to warn Niles off, saying that the booze and the dance might lead him to say something he can’t take back. “You’re sticking a fork in the toaster,” he adds. Niles shoots back: “Well, my muffin’s stuck.”

The Ski Lodge

There’s a whole oral history of this episode to feast on, so I won’t go into too much detail. It’s a perfectly tooled old-school bedroom farce, but set up so beautifully with Marty’s deafness meaning that he gives everyone the wrong idea about who's romantically interested in them. It also demonstrates why the “situation” in “situation comedy” matters; who would have thought you could get such a big laugh from someone saying, “Really?”

The Doctor is Out

Frasier always loved guest stars (although they usually played radio-show callers), and Derek Jacobi’s turn as a wheezy old thesp ruining Hamlet is also unmissable. But Patrick Stewart’s opera director who thinks Frasier is his boyfriend takes the cake, because this episode is just so full of great lines, mostly from Niles. P-Stew’s character is such a good director that “he staged a Philip Glass opera last year and no one left”. There’s also this exchange, about Roz’s boyfriend:

Martin: You know how you can tell he’s not gay? [Leans forward.] THE MUSCLES.

Niles: Second tip-off: no poodle.

Wheels of Fortune 

As recommended by Tom Hourigan, this late episode features Michael Keaton as Lilith’s grifter half-brother, who promises the Cranes that since being confined to a wheelchair, he has found Jesus and changed his ways. Like Frasier, the audience finds it hard to believe him, and the show strings out the tension like a rope of pearls.

Ham Radio

Thanks to James Graham, who pointed out to me that the structure of this episode — where Frasier stages a live murder mystery but pisses off the cast so much that Niles has to do all the parts — is the same as Michael Frayn’s stage farce Noises Off. You see the way it should go in the first act; then watch it go wrong in the second half. The live nature of the show puts the stakes up, and it has real momentum as everything collapses.

***

PS. If you've ever wondered whether or not America secretly hates us, may I offer one piece of evidence for the prosecution?

ANTHONY LAPAGLIA WON AN EMMY FOR PLAYING DAPHNE'S BROTHER.

I mean, look at his face at the awards ceremony in 2002. No, Anthony, I can't believe it either. 

Unconvinced that Frasier is the best 90s sitcom ever? New Statesman writers on why Only Fools and Horses is the ultimate immigrant comedy, what exactly was so fresh about the Fresh Prince, the technical brilliance of Brass Eye, the unlikely feminism of Sex and the City, how Alan Partridge is actually a soothsayer, why Irish Catholics love being mocked by Father Ted and how Ab Fab recorded life before Brexit.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

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.