Bryan Magee (right) interviews Isaiah Berlin for the 1978 BBC series Men of Ideas
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Even in old age, philosopher Bryan Magee remains wonder-struck by the ultimate questions

A broadcaster, politician, author and poet, Magee once occupied many prominent roles. Now, in old age, he lives in one room in a nursing hospital – yet his mind still roams restlessly free.

One summer afternoon in 1997, on assignment for the Times, I visited Bryan Magee at his flat in Kensington, west London. I read philosophy at university in the late 1980s and my understanding of the subject was transformed through watching Magee’s BBC Two series The Great Philosophers (1987) and then reading the subsequent book adapted from it. He is unsurpassed in the postwar period in Britain as a populariser of philosophy, and I learned more from the 15 episodes of that series as well as the book than from any lecture or seminar I attended. It achieved, as the philosopher and biographer Ray Monk has written, the near-impossible feat of presenting to a mass audience the recondite issues of philosophy without the loss either of accessibility or intellectual integrity.

The format was extraordinarily simple. Magee sat alongside an eminent philosopher (“two boffins on a sofa” was how the Guardian’s witty TV critic Nancy Banks-Smith described the set-up in a favourable review) and together they interrogated the work of one of the greats: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, and so on. Magee asked the questions and clarified or summarised the replies. The series was revelatory – at least to me. So, this is how to read and talk about philosophy!

Magee and I chatted for a couple of hours that afternoon as bright sunshine streamed through the high windows of his sitting room. What I liked about his approach was his willingness to demystify philosophical problems by demonstrating that they were not theoretical but existential – about the nature of reality, encountered in the course of living. Yet as I prepared to leave that afternoon, Magee, who through choice lived alone having once been briefly married, said something that I’ve never forgotten. “I get the impression,” he said, “that you feel I am lonely and unfulfilled.”

There was some truth in this: he did seem unfulfilled, and not because he lived alone. There was something restless in his manner: an irritable reaching after fact and reason, as Keats wrote in a different context. And he’d never committed himself fully to one discipline, preferring instead to occupy many different public roles as a broadcaster, politician, teacher, author and poet. And he told me – he was 67 at the time – that he believed himself still to be capable of “doing great things”. He used a German word to describe how he felt about his own potential, MachtgefühlMacht = power, Gefühl = feeling or sense. So, in broad translation, Machtgefühl: a feeling of or having a sense of power. I have also seen the word translated as “feeling of superiority” (even though I haven’t seen macht translated as “superiority”).

As an impressionable younger man, I was pretty impressed by what Magee had achieved already. What more could he do or have done? Why even now such restlessness and vaulting ambition?

In his book, Confessions of a Philosopher (1997), which is a history of Western philosophy told through his own intellectual journey, Magee offers what could be a partial answer to these questions when he describes how in his late thirties, despite having a passionate attachment to life, he was driven to the edge of mental illness, even suicide, by metaphysical terror. He learned to control his terror, which, though he did not say so, recalled Blaise Pascal’s fear of “immensity of spaces which I know not and which know not me”, through reading the writings of others, notably Arthur Schopenhauer. “I think the feeling of meaninglessness is worst of all, worse than the fear of death itself,” Magee said. “The feeling that nothing matters, that there’s no point to anything. Certainly, I have experiences, in the forms of extreme existential terror, states of mind that bordered on the intolerable.”

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Magee, who will be 88 on 12 April, now lives in one room in a nursing hospital in Oxford. It was there that I went to see him one recent afternoon. He’d re-entered my thoughts a couple of years earlier when he wrote a letter for publication in the New Statesman. Not long after that, he published a short, haunting book called Ultimate Questions, which would serve, he told me in another letter, as his final statement on philosophy while also being, he hoped, an original contribution to the subject. Then, in February, John Cleese tweeted: “One of my heroes, the philosopher Bryan Magee, has just written a new book. It’s called Ultimate Questions and I strongly recommend it.”

It was poignant encountering Magee in his hospital room after all this time. He cannot walk and sat with a blanket across his legs in an armchair directly opposite a television – he was watching the BBC news when I arrived, the sound turned up loud. He was wearing a pink open-necked business shirt and on a table before him were a telephone connected to a landline, a copy of that morning’s Times, a hardback of Ultimate Questions and several books of PG Wodehouse stories. Magee is still lucid and his voice is as warm and mellifluous as it ever was. He wears thick-framed glasses that magnify his eyes like marbles, just as they did back when he was performing as one of the boffins on the sofa.

Philosophy has been fundamental to his life for as long as he can remember. Even as a young boy he was absorbed by ultimate questions. The world and its mysteries perplexed and tormented him, from the nature of time (does it have a beginning?) to the riddle of why we sleep. He has described lying awake as a child for hours at night, longing to experience the moment at which he fell asleep, in “the same sort of way as people try to catch the light in a refrigerator going out” as its door closes. “An ever-present curiosity became for most of the time my strongest-felt emotion, sometimes the mode I lived in,” he wrote.

Even now, alone in his one room, late in life, he remains wonder-struck. “What the hell is it all about?” he asked. “What are we doing here? What’s going on? I feel the weight of these huge questions. And I know I can’t get the answers to them, and I find that oppressive.” In Ultimate Questions, Magee writes of being “driven to the view that total reality consists of some aspects that we are capable of apprehending and others that we are not”.

Philosophy is by its nature improvable: it is perpetually being revised as each generation makes its discoveries and re-evaluates the best of what has been thought and written. In this sense, with the exception of the permanent truths of mathematics and logic, human knowledge cannot be definitive. As Karl Popper argued, to demand certainty is to demand something you can never have. At best, all we can have is conjectural and provisional knowledge permanently open to improvement. For Magee, “There aren’t explanations for everything; indeed, there are no explanations for anything, and we should be far more agnostic in our way of living.”

Martin Amis, formerly an atheist, said something similar in a 2006 interview with Bill Moyers. Being an agnostic, he said, was “the only respectable position, simply because our ignorance of the universe is so vast… We’re about eight Einsteins away from getting any kind of handle on the universe. Why is the universe so incredibly complicated? That makes me delay my vote on the existence of some intelligence.”

 Inquiring minds: clockwise from top left, Bryan Magee, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper. Credit: Dan Murrell

Magee was brought up in a working-class family in Hoxton, east London. Home was a men’s clothing shop, owned by his grandfather and worked in by his father, who was an anti-communist socialist, highly cultured, and ambitious for his son. Magee adored him but disliked his mother. “She was a loveless person who never loved anybody,” he told me. “She had no affection for her children, and she told us so – she told me and my sister.”

He grew up in the street, surrounded by groups of other children. “My mother would give me a meal in the morning and then she’d shut me out on to the street, and say, ‘I don’t want to see you again until it gets dark.’ All the time she was telling us that she didn’t love us, didn’t want us and that we were in the way.”

Magee was a clever boy and, at the age of 11 and encouraged by his father, he won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital in West Sussex, a traditional public school founded in 1552 which, because of its generous system of bursaries, attracted boys from all social classes (today it is a co-educational day and boarding school). There, he was educated “out of the class system”. “The way I spoke changed – I learned to speak like everyone around me, but not consciously. It just happened. I knew too that after I’d gone to Christ’s Hospital I could do anything I wanted to do. I could be a doctor, anything.”

During his national service, he served in the army and Intelligence Corps. Magee then went up to Oxford, where he became president of the union, was a committed socialist, and “took it for granted that sooner or later I’d be a member of parliament”. After a year of graduate research in the United States, he worked in television as a “backroom boy, scriptwriter and editor” and later as an on-screen reporter and presenter because he knew that he would not earn enough from writing to support the sophisticated lifestyle he desired. “I wanted to travel, to go to the theatre, to restaurants, to have a much more metropolitan life.”

During this period, he had many relationships – he describes sex as an “other-worldly” experience and likens its effects to that of great music, “the deepest we can penetrate into a world other than this world, the world beyond appearances” – but never came close to remarrying. (He has one daughter from his brief marriage, who lives in Sweden and has three children of her own.)

“What I wanted was complete freedom,” he told me. “It’s always been a dominating feeling with me. I wanted to get up in the morning and think, ‘I’ll go to Paris for the weekend.’ You can’t do that if you’re living with someone.”

In February 1974, he was elected Labour MP for Leyton in east London. He wanted and expected to achieve high office but he was distrusted by Harold Wilson and was never promoted. He believes Wilson would not forgive him for a television interview conducted by Magee in which he had exposed the contradictions in the Labour leader’s position on the abolition of grammar schools.

“After the programme he got up and shook hands with the other people in the studio, the floor manager, the cameramen and so on, he shook hands with everybody else, and he glared at me, and he walked out. He was positively anti-me when I was an MP. I’m virtually sure that was the reason.”

Magee left politics “enormously disillusioned” having defected to the SDP; he lost his seat at the 1983 general election. “I had completely adjusted psychologically to losing,” he said. “If I hadn’t lost, I might have stood down anyway.”

****

Through all this, Magee kept coming back to philosophy. He presented radio and television series on the subject and wrote books on Karl Popper and later on Schopenhauer. He also published a book of poetry while at Oxford but regrets having done so, and a novel in which he explored his existential terror, Facing Death (1977). Despite all this activity, he was frustrated by his own limitations as he identified them – limitations of intellect and of creative imagination.

“There’s nothing I wanted to do that I haven’t done,” he said. “But I’m frustrated that I wasn’t able to do it better. What’s been wrong with me in life is that I haven’t had that extra ability or belief in myself, I don’t know what it is, that [would have] made me go one step further.”

Later in our conversation, he said: “What disappoints me about my achievement is that I expected, when I was very young and more optimistic about myself and my future, to do better. I expected to write better things than I have, but I’ve done as well as I can. I’m not as able as I would like to be but there it is.”

He has met exceptional individuals. “I got to know Bertrand Russell in the last years of his life. I knew Karl Popper quite well, and they were a whole class above me in intelligence. It wasn’t that I was jealous, it was that I was trying to grapple with these problems with inadequate weaponry.”

Magee believes he lacked originality and, until Ultimate Questions, struggled to make an original contribution to philosophy. “Popper had this originality, Russell had it, and Einstein had it in spades. Einstein created a way of seeing things which transformed the way we see the world and the way we even understand such fundamental things as time and space. And I fundamentally understand that I could never do that, never. I wish I was in that class – not because I want to be a clever chap but because I want to do things that are at a much better level than I’ve done them.”

Not lonely, then, but still restless and unfulfilled.

But what of the original contribution he claims to have made in Ultimate Questions?

“Well, it is to say that we don’t know anything.”

You mean the permanent unknowability of total reality?

“Yes, the unknowability of everything that matters.”

Of which more later.

****

Magee follows the news and politics closely and considers the vote for Brexit to have been a “historic mistake”. More than that, it has dislocated him, as it has many others. “What this has made me understand is that I’ve lost my understanding of what’s going on. We must live with the consequences. But we will have serious problems long into the future, and the most serious problem is what you call ‘the elite being out of touch’ and being wrong about one huge thing after another. Society has changed, or is changing in ways we haven’t properly grasped.”

As a young man following the example of his beloved father, Magee was on the Bevanite left, but now calls himself a centrist. “I’m not a conservative and I don’t think I could ever be. But the old categorisations of socialism, or social democracy, and conservative have been left behind by events. The parties themselves are now out of touch with the realities of social change. Both our main parties are fundamentally responses to situations that no longer exist or have become very weak. They are responses to a society that isn’t there.”

****

The final paragraph of Ultimate Questions, in which Magee speculates on how he might feel at the point of death, is especially haunting. “I can only hope that,” he writes, “when it is my turn, my curiosity will overcome my fear – though I may then be in the position of a man whose candle goes out and plunges him into pitch darkness at the very instant when he thought he was about to find what he was looking for.”

Magee does not know what he is looking for because what he seeks – answers to the ultimate questions – is unavailable. He does not attempt to find consolation in religion, in abstract systems or in general philosophies that provide explanations for everything, but nor is he an atheist. He’s an agnostic troubled continuously by the unknowability, indeed the incomprehensibility, of total reality; of what lies beyond the world of appearances and can never be breached. “I do genuinely believe the possibility that death might be total extinction, but it’s only a possibility; something else might be the case, and I generally believe that too.”

What for him is “terminally inexplicable” is existence itself. “What I feel about this is a double sense of wonder that the inexplicable is actual,” he writes in Ultimate Questions.

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After I turned the tape recorder off, Magee started to ask me questions – about where I grew up, where I went to school. He said he’d hoped my questions might have led him to some kind of revelation or renewed self-understanding. They had not. So, we talked instead about Harlow new town in Essex, where I was born, its origins and purpose. “This is interesting,” he said. “Now I’m learning something!”

He seemed reluctant for our conversation to end, so I stayed on to have a cup of tea and some lemon drizzle cake brought to us by a male nurse. Eventually I could see that he was tiring and I left him there, alone, holding a metaphorical candle as darkness fell.

Bryan Magee may now live in one room in Oxford and be unable to walk, but this remarkable man’s intellect is unbounded and his mind roams restlessly free. And just as he did as a child in Hoxton all those years ago, he cannot stop grappling with the human predicament. He is pursuing answers to questions he knows can never be answered, and yet will go on pursuing them for as long as he can, until the flickering flame of life is extinguished. 

“Ultimate Questions” is published by Princeton University Press

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire

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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.

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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 04 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire