Friday, 21 February 2020

'No News but Flu': The Spanish Flu Pandemic, 1918 by Sheena Wilkinson



In real life I’m the world’s most squeamish person. Cough beside me on public transport and I guarantee we won’t be companions for long. But for some reason I can cope with almost anything on the page, which came in very handy when, several years ago, I decided to set a novel, The Greater Malady,  during the 1918/19 influenza pandemic.  

Why the fascination with the so-called Spanish Flu? It grew out of my long-held obsession with World War One, whose ending overlapped with the flu, perhaps one reason why this crisis – the single worst demographic disaster of the 20 century – has been comparatively overlooked. Again and again I consulted histories of the period, to find the pandemic passed over in a paragraph or two. Yet it killed at least 50 million people worldwide, and its after-effects were felt for years by many survivors. 

Despite the name, it didn’t start in Spain, nor was Spain affected more than anywhere else.  Theories disagree as to whether it began in China or India, or possibly in America, where it attacked thousands of soldiers in training camps. Germans called it ‘Tommy flu’ at first, and the English called it ‘German flu’. But Spain was neutral in World War One and therefore not bound by the same reporting restrictions as the fighting powers. When morale was already so low after four years of war, the last thing governments could afford was people panicking about infection.



And at first there seemed no need to panic. The flu came in three waves, and the first one, in spring 1918, seemed no worse than the usual seasonal flu.  But by the autumn, doctors were horrified and puzzled by this illness, described in The Lancet as ‘flu, but not as we know it.’ As well as the common symptoms of fever, cough, and severe aches, many people were stricken by
dysenteric and haemorrhagic symptoms, with many choking to death on their own blood as their lungs disintegrated. The characteristic marks of cyanosis turned the faces of oxygen-starved sufferers dark blue, which led to its being called the blue flu, or the black flu. It resembled and was sometimes referred to as ‘plague’, and it killed many more people than the Black Death, but it was ‘only’ flu nonetheless. It could strike so suddenly that many people got up feeling perfectly well, only to collapse and die by nightfall. 

It infected 1/3 of world’s population, about 500 million, with a death toll of 10-20% depending on conditions. Unlike most infections, it killed the young and fit disproportionately. The death toll of c.50 million is probably a conservative one, as people often died of after-effects, related complications etc. From about 1920 war memorials started to go up in towns and villages round the world, but there are no memorials to the flu dead. It’s hard to imagine the scale – but think of how difficult it would be for life to go on with one in three people ill. Life did go on, by and large, in a population hardened by years of war, but even so, there are widespread reports of coffins piled up in the streets, the dead lying unburied, and children starving to death because their parents were lying dead in their beds. On one day in October 1918, at the height of the second wave, sixty people dropped dead in the street in London alone. 


 Why was it so bad?  I’m not an epidemiologist or scientist, but people in 1918 were often living in close quarters, in filthy trenches, army camps, and at home in factories and overcrowded housing conditions.  There was a great deal of movement of troops and support personnel. Think of how often today we get sick after travelling. On the home front, there were food shortages, low morale, and crucially a severe shortage of doctors and nurses, 50% of medical personnel on military service. Nobody was equipped to deal with a pandemic on this scale. 

Why isn’t it better known? I’ve described it as a horror story but we choose to remember other horrors – indeed remembering horror is important in helping us not to repeat the mistakes of the past. But this was horrific in a different way from war, and maybe people were scared to remember it because they knew how powerless they were to prevent its happening again. The medical profession had made improvements in public health and infection control in the 19th and early 20th C, and the war led to great strides in wound treatment, mental health, brain surgery, cosmetic surgery etc. Powerlessness against flu doesn’t fit that narrative of medical progress and confidence, and it was accepted that there was very little doctors could actually do. Nursing -- and luck -- played the greatest role. 



Another narrative it doesn’t sit easily with is that of heroism, so important at the time. While death in battle could be seen – however grim the reality – as noble and sacrificial, death from a disease was simply bad luck. It’s also very hard to romanticize – the symptoms were so disgusting. And maybe, after over four years of the most terrible war, people simply couldn’t bear any more horror. 

We know now that, like most influenza pandemics, the 1918 flu lasted for about a year and then petered out, but those living through it had a great deal of uncertainty. What exactly was it? When would it end? Would they get it? Would they die? Was it in fact the end of the world? Was God punishing humanity for the devastation of the war? These are the questions people were almost afraid to ask at the time. They must have felt like they were living through a medieval plague, and who wants that to mess up the sense of 20th century modernity?



Funnily enough – I didn’t think it funny at the time – The Greater Malady, which I spent two years writing, was never sold. Clearly the publishing world did not share my fascination with this pandemic. But when I wrote Star by Star, set at the end of World War One, I knew that the flu would be a central issue in the book, and all that disgusting, horrific research would come in very handy. And in my forthcoming novel, Hope against Hope, set in 1921, the heroine’s family has also been bereaved by flu, not because I was being lazy and repetitive but because, a hundred years ago, with one third of the world’s population affected, there can have been very few families immune. 






Friday, 14 February 2020

Creative Non-Fiction, into the Past - Joan Lennon



I'm a History Girl.  I'm an advocate of fiction as a way into the past.  And non-fiction as a way into the past.  Then, in-between them, there's creative non-fiction.  When asked - which doesn't happen a great deal - what creative non-fiction is, I tend to flounder, usually ending up with something like "It's, um, factual, but, er, written up pretty.  Er."  Online definitions are more elegant, but the comment by critic Chris Anderson that it is a genre "currently defined by its lack of established conventions" is very much on the money.

I think maybe we know it when we read it.  I certainly knew it when I read Linda Cracknell's The Beat of the Heart Stones.  In this tiny, beautiful book, there is a conversation, between the present and the past, between a walker and a wall.  The Dyke was built up the side of Schiehallion in the late 18th century, and in The Beat, the writer begins to climb the mountain, following along the path of the wall.  More quickly than you'd think, the idea that the dyke can speak becomes completely believable.  Here is a snippet of their conversation:

So they used whatever was close by?  Here's a block of quartz, the glitter of mica schist.  Here a seaweed green section, here bare grey.

What the Earth spits out.  Would you want to heave it far across the hills? ...


It was weans and women and tinkers hauled these rocks - left them in a rickle each side of the line, within reach of the hands that built my long slow uphill spine.


Whose hands?


One craftsman each side.  Raising two inward-leaning walls that kissed just before they were capped.  Think of the men as you walk ...


They saw at a glance how one stone would nudge and slide against another, the shape and ache of a gap ...


They made it a rule - never pick up a stone more than once.  Assess them where they lie.



The author's line drawings of the wall climb across the pages and intermingle with the words.  For me, it was a way in to the past that wasn't fiction or non-fiction, but both.  

The book ends with a question, as the present overtakes the past.  I wanted it to be longer, except it is the perfect length.




Schiehallion (1083 metres), viewed across the River Tay 
(wiki commons)


P.S. This little gem of a book, and Linda Cracknell's other fiction, non-fiction and creative non-fiction can be bought here.


P.P.S.  A short distance from the Dyke, the slopes of Schiehallion had also been the site of Maskelyn's Observatory.  "The Schiehallion Experiment" of 1774 aimed to estimate the weight of the earth.  (In the process, it also gave us what became known as contour lines.)  You can watch a short video here that describes the basics of what happened, before the whole thing came to a dramatic end.  As Wikipedia tells us,

"During a drunken party to celebrate the end of the surveying, the northern observatory was accidentally burned to the ground, taking with it a fiddle belonging to Duncan Robertson, a junior member of the surveying team. In gratitude for the entertainment Robertson's playing had provided Maskelyne during the four months of astronomical observations, he compensated him by replacing the lost violin with a Stradivarius."


But that's a bit of creative non-fiction for another day.


P.P.P.S. When you read this, I will be in the middle of a month's writing residency on Fair Isle.  I think I will be working on historical narrative poetry, but who knows?  Maybe I'll be busily engaged in historical creative non-fiction.  Time will tell ...




Joan Lennon's blog.
Silver Skin.

Friday, 7 February 2020

The Best Historical Fiction for LGBT History Month - chosen by Anna Mazzola


February is LGBT History Month in the UK and therefore an excuse to pull together my favourite historical fiction novels that explore gender and sexuality throughout the ages.


THE SONG OF ACHILLES BY MADELINE MILLER


An exquisitely-written reimagining of The Iliad, told from the point of view of Patroclus, Achilles’s lover. An entirely fresh take on the Trojan War and its heroes by the author of that other extraordinary novel, Circe.


AS MEAT LOVES SALT BY MARIA McCANN


McGann’s thrilling and erotic debut is a tale of obsession and murder set during the violence of the English Civil War. Dark, complex and unflinching. Everyone should read McCann’s novels immediately.


DAYS WITHOUT END BY SEBASTIAN BARRY


Set in the 1850s and ’60s, during the wars the U.S. fought against the Sioux and the Yurok, and the Civil War, this is a stunning and deeply moving story of two soldiers—an Irish immigrant, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole.


THE SEALED LETTER BY EMMA DONOGHUE


The Sealed Letter explores the story of a divorce trial that scandalised mid-Victorian London, focussing on the reluctant involvement of Emily Faithful and her relationship with the seemingly less-than-faithful half of the marriage, Helen Smith Codrington. An intriguing and cleverly-written mystery.


FINGERSMITH BY SARAH WATERS


Really I could have included most of Sarah Waters’ books here, but Fingersmith remains my favourite: a glorious mystery and love truly with a truly gripping plot.
Also featuring a wonderful cast of villainous characters, brilliant use of 19th century slang (‘Pigeon, my arse!’) and the best twist in the business.


REGENERATION BY PAT BARKER


The Regeneration trilogy is an incredible fictionalized account of the relationship between army psychiatrist Dr Rivers and a group of interconnected patients, including Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. It blends brilliantly the horrors of war with gay life in Edwardian England and the newly emerging science of psychology.



THE COLOUR PURPLE WALKER


An epic and heart-breaking tale of perseverance as well as an exploration of race, gender, family, and sexuality in 1930s Georgia. The novel is, among many other things, a story of love between women.


MUSSOLINI’S ISLAND


In 1939 a series of Sicilian men were taken from their homes and imprisoned on the island of San Domino in the Adriatic Sea. Their crime? They were gay. Out of this little-known slice of history, Sarah Day has created a fascinating and beautifully written novel.

And coming soon...




Do also look out for Neil Blackmore's The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle, sauntering your way in April 2020: a dark and funny romp through the Grand Tour - The Favourite meets the Talented Mr Ripley in 18th century Europe.


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Anna Mazzola is a writer of dark historical fiction. 

https://annamazzola.com
https://twitter.com/Anna_Mazz