Book Review: ‘The Ghost Map’ by Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


How grim was life in London, with the Industrial Revolution (and for that matter the British Empire) in full swing? Behind the bright, prosperous façade of Regent Street, who were the mudlarks, toshers and the original Dustmen, and how did they live? What kind of landscape did they move through: its sights, its sounds; its smells? The opening scenes of Steven Johnson’s ‘The Ghost Map’ plunge us right in. They could be straight from Dickens. We even get to meet Karl Marx – or at least, his filthy, squalid rented room.

And what happened when, in the torrid late summer of 1854, cholera struck?

You could almost paraphrase this story as ‘A Vicar, a Yorkshireman, and a bureaucrat walk into a pub’ – because had the rapid growth of London never happened – the very growth that put urban lives in peril – then Henry Whitehead, John Snow, and William Farr would never have met, and the problem of how to stop Cholera in its tracks not have been solved. Or at least, not before tens of thousands in another generation had suffered.

We follow these characters both in their daily rounds of work and in their pursuit of answers – and then irrefutable proof – of Cholera’s mechanism, as they go door-to-door for detailed information in the stricken and incongruously named Golden Square and its surrounding sewage-ridden, impoverished streets.

We find out why the detailed work and irrefutable proof was needed, as we meet the characters of the medical establishment: from a small local committee, through the newly-formed public health apparatus, all the way up to ‘The Lancet’. Why did they doubt this straightforward and obvious explanation which we, nowadays, take for granted: that Cholera is water-borne? What was the fault at the medical establishment’s heart, and how was it eventually overcome? Steven Johnson takes us effortlessly from microscopic, to urban, and worldwide, scale.

Within walking distance of where I live, near his birthplace in North Street, York, is a monument to John Snow – a replica water-pump, complete with removed handle. I picked up ‘The Ghost Map’ through wanting to know the story behind it. It is beautifully and thoroughly told, complete with references and index.

My only tiny gripe would be that it was never ‘translated from the American’ – references to ‘sidewalks’, ‘diapers’ (yes they play a crucial role!) and ‘stories’ (as in, floors of buildings), when talking about Victorian London, can jar a little.

I’d recommend ‘The Ghost Map’ to anyone who enjoys a look into history, a classic detective story and, although it was written in 2006 (making some of its descriptions of contemporary epidemiology and mapping a little dated), a thought-provoking and prescient take on where we are now.

Oh – and the pub? It’s still there. It’s now called ‘The John Snow’.




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Book Review: ‘Follow Him’ by Craig Stewart

Follow Him by Craig Stewart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A haunting hallucination, a disturbing power relationship, and the sense of impending doom pull the reader into the very first page of Follow Him.

Much of Part 1 is too ‘male gaze’ for my tastes, including the sex scene and the supposition that the woman involved – but not the man – ends up ‘sacrificed’. Too obvious, guys – in fact the trope is nicely twisted as she returns later as a vital part of the narrative, and he ends up paying a price too.

The characters begin to show their true depths as the plot progresses. Their backstories, their emotional ‘pressure points’ so ably abused by the cult, and how they came to join it, ring realistic to a worrying degree.

The second part reads like a taut, psychological thriller. Nina’s inner dialogue initially comes across as a little too sentimental and verbose, and her Catholicism could be a little more three-dimensional, but she toughens-up, and becomes more self-consistent, as her journey to rescue her man plunges her deeper into the darkness that is the Shared Heart.

Will he love her again? Will she get over-run by the part of her that wants to punish him? Will he stop blaming her for the blood-stained incident in their past that wasn’t her fault (in fact, if they are being held up as an embodiment of Love, should he have been blaming her – before he joined the cult – at all? This rather jarred – again, male viewpoint.) Will the nosy neighbour accidentally betray her as she hides the man she loves in the only place that offers space enough for her to begin the process of reconstructing his mind? Will the cult find them and reclaim him? And if they do, what might they do to her?

And finally: where do the collective nightmares of this Crowley-like cult come from? Will they, in fact, be revealed not to be nightmares at all..?

Like a Horror version of Ken Follet’s ‘The Hammer of Eden’, but one in which the cult is darker and the Demons are real, this tale is literally not for the faint-hearted!




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The Third Kingdom

What is it?

It’s an alien growing out of a dead tree-stump. Not animal or plant. I spotted it on New Walk.

New walk has a strange history: it was constructed along the riverside, a mile or so outside town, with no obvious origin or destination. Its purpose was solely to enable grand, Regency types to promenade of a warm evening and show off their finery. So it was basically a glorified catwalk (or runway, if you’re from the USA.)

It was planted with stately horse-chestnut trees of which this, in the picture, was once one. Most of the rest are still thriving, and the path has since been extended all the way to Skeldergate Bridge to the north and beyond our allotments to the south. So it’s basically my walk into town – which is why bits of it feature on this blog so often.

This time of year and the next month or so are the best for spotting fungi of both the edible and inedible sort. Telling the former from the latter is a black art mostly lost to us Brits. But some of us are married to Central or Eastern Europeans, so we get to cheat a bit. We get our other half coming home from ‘a quick bike-ride’ with things like this little lot:

(The egg-box is for scale)

Peeled and stewed, Boletus Mushrooms are great with gently-fried onions and mashed spuds. They have, ounce-for-ounce, a protein content that’s not far shy of the best steak.

And our Unidentified Fungal Objects at the top of this post? Apparently they’re Dryad’s Saddle – at least, according to the first answer to my query to The Facebook Hive-Mind. And they’re edible, but not once they get as huge and tough as the one in the picture…

Unless, of course, you know different.