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Harriet Harman: the irresistible force

Is Harriet Harman the most successful politician of her generation?

As the year 1982 began, Harriet Harman had a plan. She was already the parliamentary candidate for the safe Labour seat of Peckham, where her 66-year-old predecessor, Harry Lamborn, had announced he was standing down. If she had a baby now, she could get back to work before the next general election the following year.

Once she was pregnant, she and her partner, the union official Jack Dromey, swallowed their qualms about the patriarchal institution of marriage, “for the sake of my parents and my constituency”. In her memoir, A Woman’s Work, she records the scene at Willesden Register Office, north London, in August 1982: “There was no wedding ring, no white dress, no flowers, no vowing to obey, no father giving me away. Neither my, nor Jack’s, parents were invited.” In fact, there were no guests at all – just two witnesses. Harman wore a hot-pink dress and made no effort to disguise her bump.

Immediately afterwards, the newlyweds set off for La Rochelle in south-western France, with Dromey stopping the car frequently so his new wife could lean out and be sick. Sitting by a lake in the sunshine, they found a three-day-old copy of the Times, which carried the headline: “Labour MP dies”. It was Harry Lamborn.

And so Harman contested the resulting by-election while five months pregnant. She says the campaign of her SDP challenger, Dick Taverne, tried to suggest this was a problem – but the strategy backfired when working-class women in the constituency pointed out that they’d held down a job while raising their children. (Taverne says this claim is untrue, and that in his election night speech he expressed his happiness that Harman’s pregnancy did not stop her being elected. “I did not approve of her political views at the time, which have somewhat changed,” he tells me now. “I have much admired her record since and wish she had become Labour leader. The party would not be in the desperate and tragic state it is now.”) 

On election night, Harman ended up babysitting for a woman on the Glebe Estate who had wanted to vote but whose husband was late home from work. “That was just one of so many encounters which reinforced in me the belief that I had a particular mandate from women, and that it mattered to them and was important that I was different from the men,” she writes.

In her Commons office overlooking the chocolate-box grandeur of Big Ben, I ask her if life became easier once she’d arrived in parliament aged 32. In 1982, there were only 19 female MPs: eleven from Labour, and eight from the Conservatives – including Margaret Thatcher. “I was expecting to come in with other women,” she says now. “And then it was me, pushing open that enormous door. You know the doors to the House of Commons, opposite the Speaker? They are so huge and heavy . . . it was like the women’s movement was this irresistible force, but meeting the implacable object of the House of Commons.” She remembers hundreds of men in grey suits, with an average age of 54, surrounding her in her red velvet maternity dress. “It was awful.”

In December 2016, the 66-year-old Harriet Harman became the longest continuously serving female MP. After the 2015 election, there were 191 women on the green benches, including 99 from Labour. Her memoir is one giant rebuke to those who would dismiss efforts for more equal representation as tokenism or anti-meritocratic. There is strength in numbers; the equalities agenda to which Harman has dedicated her life would have faltered without a movement behind it.

 

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Harman now occupies a unique position in British politics. There is a faction of the right that finds her more irritating than almost any other politician from the Blair years, possibly because she is still around to annoy them. The work of Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail encapsulates the charge sheet. She is posh: “Educated at St Paul’s, this scion of the Pakenham family has become the Gromyko of Camberwell”. She has aged: “Those cheeks (on her face) have lost some of their usual pouchy pulchritude,” he lamented in 2007. She is humourless and perpetually vexed, “the frumpish Lady Indignant” (2015). And above all, she is Harriet Harperson, “Britain’s most ear-drillingly insistent feminist” (2013).

Over the years, such attacks as these have been counterproductive. Whatever problems other women in the party had with Harman, they could see how unfairly she was treated. And for the next generation, her resilience in the face of endless brickbats was inspiring. Jess Phillips, who was elected the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley in 2015, opens her book, Everywoman, with Harman warning her that being a public feminist means “you will never be popular”; she says it felt as if the older woman was passing on the baton. A review of both books by Julie Burchill favourably contrasted the “gobby Brummie” Phillips with the “bogus and bossy” Harman. But the 35-year-old says this misses the point. “I get to be me, because she was so derided for so long,” Phillips says. “It’s like: my mum had to moan about the patriarchy, whereas I get to be funny about the patriarchy.”

Phillips says that Harman’s strength came from rejecting the idea that women should be in competition with each other. “She said to me, ‘There’s no need for people to compare us. We’re from different generations. You’re like Deliciously Ella, and I was Delia.’ And it’s true! Like we are using limes now, it feels like we always had coconut milk in our lives, and now people like us can make curries. That’s what Harriet did: she brought flavour to the Labour Party. So now I get to have a cocktail.”

One of the most interesting questions to ask anyone in Labour is this: is Harriet Harman funny? Half of those you ask will say that she is. “She learned how to slay with a joke,” says a former staffer. “At home, she is fun, silly, warm,” says her daughter, Amy. Yet others see someone who has learned to smother her humour for fear of being misinterpreted or dismissed. “Her generation – including Jack – are a bit humourless,” says one woman in the current parliamentary party. “They couldn’t be funny, because ­being Labour was so hard in the 1980s.” ­Alison McGovern, the Labour MP for Wirral South, puts it another way: “Women can’t be funny, because we’re already not taken seriously.”

The other criticism is that Harman is robotic – that she is typical of the control-freakery of the New Labour era, in which ministers were discouraged from thinking for themselves. “I can’t stand her,” one BBC producer told me recently. “She just parrots the line.” I put this to her: isn’t the rise of Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, in their different ways, a reaction against her style of politics? Being loyal to the point of repetition has firmly gone out of fashion. “Yes, but it hasn’t in terms of what makes things work in politics,” she replies, crisply.

That loyalty has led to situations she now finds it uncomfortable to discuss. In her book, she mentions being sent out to defend Gordon Brown after Caroline Flint accused him of using women as “window dressing”. Soon afterwards, the prime minister revealed that – having refused to make Harman deputy PM despite her being deputy Labour leader – he had, in effect, given the job to Peter Mandelson, making him first secretary of state. So Flint was right, wasn’t she? Trying to explain her response, Harman’s already frequent use of the word “like” in conversation steps up a gear. At the end of it, she adds: “I was very careful not to criticise Caroline, and did words like, ‘We all want to make more progress.’”

I ask Flint how she felt about the incident. “Lonely and isolated”, she says. “Everything that Harriet has said since goes some way to vindicating what I was saying – you can have women around the table but unless they have meaningful influence, it feels like you’re there for the appearance only.” Nonetheless, Flint says that their relationship is now positive. “In shadow cabinet [under Ed Miliband], she did try to draw ­attention to some of the issues I was trying to raise about who we’re appealing to.”

For at least a year now, I’ve been putting a startling proposition to former and current Labour politicians, staffers and activists. Is Harriet Harman the most successful left-wing politician of her generation? She has dramatically increased the number of female MPs and ensured that women’s lives and needs are part of the political conversation. The Equality Act 2010, passed in the dying gasps of the Brown government, made significant demands on employers. They were no longer allowed to bar workers from comparing their pay; laws were brought in against age discrimination; positive action was allowed to increase the recruitment of minorities.

Its “Clause One” was so radical that it has still not been enacted. After all, it asked public bodies to strive to “reduce the inequalities of outcome that result from socio-economic disadvantage”. In other words, the public sector would have to take class into account in everything it did. (At the time, the journalist Polly Toynbee called it “socialism in one clause”.)

Harman regrets now that it was never enacted: “It would have been a big signal that class inequality is at the heart of what we’re concerned about.” But getting the bill passed at all was a struggle. Ayesha Haza­rika, who worked as Harman’s special adviser for women, compared the mood in her office to the film Cool Runnings, in which the Jamaican bobsleigh team improbably get to the Winter Olympics. “The civil servants said [the bill] was a mopping-up exercise, and she stood up and told them it wasn’t: it was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something radical. Their faces were full of horror and disbelief.” Other parts of Whitehall, particularly the Department for Business, were obstructive. “I came back browbeaten by a load of male special advisers and she would say, ‘Ayesha, we will not take no for an answer.’”

 

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Here’s an easy way to wind up a right-winger: tell them that Harriet Harman is an anti-establishment politician. Yes, like Nigel Farage, she is the product of a comfortable home – her father was a doctor and her mother was a lawyer – and attended private school. But during her early career, she challenged the male dominance of parliament, the Labour Party and lobby journalism. She tells me early on in our conversation that she has a challenge she wants to throw down: Labour should publish its gender pay gap. “Let’s not just be [saying] we believe in equality – let’s be prepared to confront what is going on. So in each workplace, the women and the men can see how they’re differently valued.”

Unsurprisingly, this willingness to criticise her own party’s structures has made her enemies. John Prescott couldn’t stand her, muttering as she walked back from winning the Labour deputy leadership that he wouldn’t help her. (By contrast, Alan Johnson – whom she beat by less than 1 percentage point for the role – wrote in his memoir that she was the better candidate.)

Now, she won’t be drawn on what Prescott’s problem was, though she contrasts him unfavourably with Johnson. “Alan is very unusual in that he can see the bigger picture, and knows what is the right thing to do, and the right thing is to pull people together if you’ve lost an election.” She then drops in a casual criticism of the kind that occurred so often in her book, I gave it a nickname: the Harriet drive-by. “And David Miliband didn’t do that.”

It is hard to recall, now that feminism is so mainstream, but during the 1980s Harman was regarded as a dull, single-issue crank. (Her maiden speech in the House was on childcare.) When she called for half of Labour MPs to be female, “all the men felt it was a personal attack on them”. When she returned to work after her first maternity leave, one of her colleagues reported her to the serjeant-at-arms for taking the baby through the division lobby under her coat. She had to explain to the official that, in fact, “I was still fat from being pregnant.” She now says that such behaviour “was like harassment, really” and it made her want to give up. “But I couldn’t leave, because it would have been literally sending out the message that women can’t hack it.”

She describes it as “a bit of a mortification” that the Conservatives have elected their second female leader before Labour has managed a single one. She prefers not to use Theresa May’s name, referring acidly to “her”, and is sceptical of May’s pledge, in her first speech outside Downing Street, to be a champion of equality. “It’s like how I felt when Margaret Thatcher said ‘let there be peace’ when she was causing absolute misery and division within and between communities . . . If you want to change things, and change them for the better, you don’t join the Tory party.” She believes most Conservative attempts to increase female representation spring from the realisation that it’s good PR. In 1997, when 101 female Labour MPs were elected, she says, the Tories realised “they were going to have electoral problems if they looked like the 1950s Politburo and we looked like today”.

Her book is clear on the highs and lows of politics. The lows include her sacking from her first cabinet job, and the highs include the back-room role of solicitor general, improving the conduct of domestic violence and rape trials. She survived the unbroken opposition of the 1980s with her drive intact, but admits that the party is once again in “wilderness years”. She adds: “What we learned in the 1980s is that there’s no point kidding yourself that things are better than they are . . . and you can’t just wait for people to get fed up with the Tories, because people were fed up with the Tories in the 1980s. I mean, Thatcher had become such a hate figure, they even had to get rid of her, but it still didn’t mean people came to us.”

Harman admits she has struggled throughout her career with the idea that she was a bad mother, though the culture of parliament did little to help. In 1989, she took her son to the cinema at half-term, only to receive a pager message asking her to stand in for the shadow health minister Robin Cook in the Commons. She decided not to reply and expected a reprimand when she later told him simply: “I was not available.” Instead he beamed at her and let her go. On her way out, she realised that he had assumed she was having an affair.

The incident taught her two things: first, that no one is indispensable (in the end, Frank Dobson stood in). Second, it showed the double standards of a male-dominated workplace: “It would, in the eyes of my colleagues, have been beyond the pale for me to be absent because of my children, [but] falling down in my duties because of an affair was not only understood by my male colleagues but thoroughly approved of.”

She is still unashamedly maternal. Jess Phillips calls her “the mom of the Labour Party”. (Another female MP describes her as a “queen”, noting that her initials are HRH.) When I spent a day with her in 2015, Harman joked that she had subsumed her hunger for grandchildren into buying two Burmilla kittens, Minky and Silvio. Her daughter, Amy, is a classical musician, her older son, Harry, works at Channel 4, and Joe is a Labour councillor in south London. (The boys have their father’s surname, while Amy is a Harman.) Harman tried to shield them from the press interest in her life, though that wasn’t always possible. “I never found it weird seeing her on TV,” says Amy now. “But once, a classmate said that their dad told them that my mum hated men. And I was like, ‘She likes my brothers and my dad!’”

A frequent criticism is that Harman’s brand of feminism focuses too much on women like her. “She’s always employed women in her office,” says a Labour staffer. “But mostly they are quite privileged. I don’t know if she doesn’t see it, or if she just thinks it’s not her job.” One female Labour MP says “if you’re in her gang, she’s a tiger. But if you’re not, it can be quite brutal.”

Another former staffer describes a story about a Glasgow housing estate that circulated during the Gordon Brown years. “The story is that Harriet is door-knocking and a guy comes to answer in a football shirt, drinking a can of beer. And she asks him what he’s up to, and he says, ‘Watching the horses’. And she replies, ‘Oh, showjumping?’”

The story is almost certainly untrue – it has the same structure as the one told about Peter Mandelson mistaking mushy peas in a chip shop for guacamole – but the person who told it to me said it persisted because of its fundamental truth. Yet even if Harman is posh, she’s not elitist. “I’ve been out with other politicians who wouldn’t have got out of the car in that kind of estate,” he said.

This perception of her class privilege has made her life more difficult. When I ask Alison McGovern why so many people hate Harman, she replies, “There’s a simple answer to that: because she’s a woman. The more complicated answer is: because if you’re a working-class man, you feel she hasn’t struggled in the way you have.” This tension is a running theme between the trade union movement – long dominated by men – and left-wing feminism. “If the Labour Party’s central job is to raise wages at the bottom of the income distribution, right now that’s women,” adds McGovern. “The care sector, the hospitality sector – those are dominated by women.”

This chimes with my memories of shadowing Harman on the much-mocked “Woman to Woman” tour during the 2015 election – you know, the one with the notorious Pink Bus, which she insisted was actually “one-nation magenta”. It felt totally different from the rallies and set-piece speeches that otherwise dominate election campaigns; at one point, we ended up in a café in Leamington Spa, passing round an adorable baby as the child’s mother told us how she was struggling to find work that fitted around her ability to find childcare. Harman listened intently.

 

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There is a strange circularity to Harriet Harman’s front-bench career. It began in 1997, under Tony Blair, when she was made minister for social security. From the start, the appointment was troubled. She was also minister for women and equality, and her department resented half her focus being elsewhere. Turf wars broke out: the Home Office wanted to lead on domestic violence, while David Blunkett at Education wanted to be in charge of childcare. Her deputy at Social Security, Frank Field, had been working on benefits reform from the back benches and, Harman says, saw her as a “Blairite loyalist”. It also transpired that Blair had given Field the impression that Harman was merely keeping the seat warm until he could become secretary of state.

Her downfall came through a manifesto pledge: Gordon Brown as chancellor had committed Labour to observing Tory spending limits for the first two years in government. So she had to cut benefits for lone parents by £6 a week. By 1998, in the middle of press reports about her uselessness, she realised she was a dead woman walking. “I could even sense my diary secretary hesitating to schedule appointments,” she writes in the book. She was duly sacked in the next reshuffle. (Frank Field
resigned rather than be moved to another department, and has remained on the back benches ever since.) “What I should have done is made it not just my problem but everybody’s problem,” she says now. “If I’d had the energy and the political experience, I never would have got into that position.”

But fast-forward to the summer of 2015, when Harman – now acting leader – was again confronted with a manifesto pledge to match Conservative welfare cuts. The “benefits cap”, restricting the maximum amount a household can claim, was in Ed Miliband’s programme for government and was incorporated into the Tory welfare bill after he lost the election. Harman decided that the party would abstain on the second reading, call for amendments, and then vote against on the third reading. She intended this to send a signal to the party’s core working-class vote, which felt that Labour was a soft touch on welfare.

The move backfired. The abstention was seized upon by the left in the party to demonstrate that Labour was “pro-austerity” and “Tory-lite”. The leadership contenders in the cabinet had to vote with the whip, while, on the back benches, Jeremy Corbyn was free to oppose the bill at both readings. The decision is often credited with giving him the momentum he needed to win the leadership. (Ironically, Corbyn ordered MPs to vote for triggering Article 50 on its second reading because of a similar political calculation: it was unpopular with Labour members but popular with swing voters.)

Does Harman now regret her decision? “It was jumped on because there was a mood in the party to swing to the left,” she says. If not that issue, she believes that discontent would have crystallised around something else. “A lot of people were disaffected when we were still in government. That had grown, but because we only lost narrowly in 2010, and there was only a coalition, it was masked by people still hoping that we would get in. But once it was evident we weren’t, it was like ‘We told you so’ . . . repressed resentment, anger, disappointment just burst out.”

Ayesha Hazarika believes that there was no right decision: “She felt she was taking a personal hit, but she was trying to show the voters we had listened.” In any case, the mood inside Labour HQ was already bleak. “When Ed Miliband resigned, it was so fast. Ed Balls had lost his seat. We’d lost Scotland. Everyone was in tears in Victoria Street. Harriet said: ‘Go into the bathroom, dry your tears; we’ve got work to do. We’ve got a party to keep together.’ I thought it was harsh but it was so right.” Hazarika ­believes this is why the welfare vote will not cloud Harman’s legacy. “They see her as a trouper, even people who don’t like her.”

Alison McGovern also sees her as someone willing to subsume her ego into a movement. “Harmanism isn’t a thing . . . It’s why she’s been successful, but it’s also why she hasn’t been credited.” Jess Phillips agrees. “Unlike many high-flyers in the Blair government, Harriet has won at politics. With Blair or Brown, their legacies – regardless of the good that they did – are terrible. Look in the Commons and you can physically see the difference made by Harriet.”

Harriet Harman will be in conversation with Jackie Ashley at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 22 April 2017.

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. 

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again

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 02 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again