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’.




View all my reviews

The Plot: Late summer

Late summer – that is, from about now – has a scent all its own. I’ve no idea why, but it always makes me think of Scotland. The heatwave is over; everything has its energy and is no longer thirsty. There’s petrichor – the smell of rain on dry earth – but even that isn’t the whole of it. There’s pine, grass; a spot of night. Where we live, the first day of August brings the first proper night that isn’t just Astronomical Twilight.

And the Plot, bless it, begins to Produce.

20200812_190209

Last year I bought beans in a Hungarian market. Like an idiot I put them in the fridge rather than do the correct thing and hang them up to dry. They went manky but I couldn’t bear to sling them so I planted them anyway (this is what’s known, in our house, as the Sporting Chance School of Gardening). And some came good! Here they are, in all their puce-speckled glory. They’ve been joined by some half-a-dozen more now, which are all being kept to sow for a proper crop next year.

And now, meet our first potato:

20200815_120951

Yes that’s a life-size hand, and quite a large one (mine).

Here’s the first celeriac we’ve ever sucessfully grown:

20200815_122321

And finally, here’s one of the 20 or so Kale plants which, when in their tiny pots, I thought had all been eaten by slugs, but planted the little sticks out anyway:

20200813_125343cr

Our plot is surrounded by brambles. They’re a nuisance to keep in check but this year they’ve given us nearly three kilos of blackberries. Just the right quantity for a batch of dark red wine…

Back to the Plot…

20200731_184138.jpg

Here’s one of the last of our Globe Artichokes. The patch – about 4 square metres – produces a couple of dozen of these beauties every year. We eat them French style: saw off the bottom, cut off the top, sharp spikes of each leaf (I use sturdy scissors for this), and steam for 40 minutes or so. Then each leaf can be peeled off and the inner side has a nutty-tasting soft bit that you can pull off with your teeth! Having eaten all those, and peeled off a sort of hairy top-knot inside, you get to the heart. Mmm…

20200731_184004

The Radishes are also ready now: here are our first few. We may have left these in the ground too long: they certainly have ‘character’!

20200731_184103

Runner beans are taking over – they’re even outgrowing the bindweed! (You might be able to see it there – in the lower right-hand corner by the poppy-head.)

The plot can look a bit bedraggled now the first flush of green has had a few weeks of summer weather thrown at it, but to us that just means it’s ‘wildlife-friendly’!

20200731_184041

Wildlife, though, are the reason we have to spread nets over the purple spouting broccoli. If we didn’t, the greedy wood-pigeons would have the lot.

Finally, here is part of last week’s harvest:

20200708_142558

 

 

The path not taken

“That Rich,” scoffed Nathan as he turned to his wife, “is a freaking Narcissist.” He scowled, waiting for confirmation about the President’s mental health.

“Yes, dear.” His wife didn’t take her eyes off the T.V.

Sam and Olivia burst in, home from school.

“Hang your masks up on the hooks, SamAnOllie, and go wash your hands.”

The children pulled off their RichMasks, decorated with the flag and the slogan “We’re All Rich!”, and disappeared to the cloakroom. Strains of the world’s hardest-to-sing national anthem came, as they made sure to count the full twenty seconds.

The President’s speech continued:

“Today I announce zero deaths this month. Zero. Zero deaths total since the first case, and zero new cases. Aren’t they beautiful, those zeros? Aren’t they the best? And all because of my team.”

He threw a big, clumsy arm round the slight, bespectacled figure beside him. He patted the sheepish cheek with the other hand, knocking the glasses askew. The face behind the glasses blushed.

“Dr F. He’s the best Scientific Adviser. And I chose him – y’know that? Other people said, ‘Don’t pick him, he’s only worked on African viruses.’ But I ignored them. So it’s all down to me. I let him get on with his work like no-one else; I told him. When he came to me needing money for masks, PPE; PatriotTrace, I organised it. I told the Treasury Secretary – she’s the best, by the way, a real cutie – I said ‘Get the guy the money; get him all the loot he needs,’ and she did it because she always listens to me – she’s got brains. I like brains. I like a woman who can handle figures – know what I mean?”

“What’s for supper?”

“I’m cooking tonight.” Nathan rose from the couch and flipped the T.V. off. “Pizza.”

“Pizza’s unhealthy. They said so at school. President Rich wants us to eat healthy.”

“And salad. From the veg box.”

The veg box, delivered twice a week and adorned with the obligatory flag and slogan, had become an object of contention in the family. The kids loved the novelty, but their parents said it ‘made us look like we were poor. And anyway, poor folks need it more than we do.’

When her husband had left the room, Christine picked up the remote and quietly put the T.V. back on. The President was talking about the continuing Quarantine rules (‘Patriot Protection’, organised by ‘His Border Force. Y’know everybody used to hate them but since I took charge and put my guys in there, now everybody loves them!’), and the erection of a monument to ‘victims of the virus. Y’see, it’s just gonna be a plinth. No victims! We got zero victims. So it’s gonna have my name on it – my face because I’m the one who saw to it that there were zero deaths. It’s gonna be a big, beautiful monument to zero deaths!’

He moved on to what ‘his team’ intended to do to get the economy back up and running…

They’d have sunk – family and country – without the quarterly Freedom Checks: freedom, in their case, to stay at home and not risk going to work – two crowded 20-minute subway rides there, two back, and open-plan air-conditioned offices. They may look well-off – she did her best to make it appear so (don’t we all?) – but like everybody they were only one pay-check away from disaster, and there’d been talk of ‘downsizing’ at both her and her husband’s workplaces – she in Event Planning and he in Advertising.

Sure, the President was a narcissist – a real hard case. But who else would have grabbed the wheel and got the country through this mess? Who else would shout and bluster to make sure everyone – like her brother and sister both in Healthcare – got the protective kit they needed, every day? Who else could have gotten away with telling all the malls and bars to shut up shop, making everyone register for tracing, and above all persuading folks that wearing face-coverings was an act of patriotism? Look at England, France; Brazil – tens of thousands of virus deaths, and economies in meltdown.

Sure she’d vote him out at the next election, the egomaniac that he was. But for now…

 

Confidence trick

The inert, black-shrouded body lies in the middle of the road. The two uniformed men each take a shoulder, drag it out of the way of traffic, and let it slump unceremoniously on the curb. They josh with their mates – “This one don’t weigh much!” – before returning to resume their work – moving more bodies.

Behind them the abandoned body sits up, gets to its feet, and rushes back to re-take its place with five hundred and ninety-nine others in the middle of Whitehall. The protest – against a nuclear waste reprocessing plant – continues in that vein for the rest of the day.

The white-haired woman at the front of the crowd by the Compound’s gate waves her county’s flag on a long bamboo pole, shouting as the leader of her party – a legitimate political party with representatives in her country’s Parliament, no less – is dragged past her through mud. She hears an intercom from the policeman behind her, giving instructions to move everybody, no matter what. Her flag is snatched from her hands and thrown in a ditch. She digs in her heals – I’m not moving anywhere without my white rose! – and only relents when a sheepish policeman retrieves the flag from the ditch and hands it her.

20190505_161824

Tea-time, and there’s a loud knock at the door. She answers it, to two policemen. They are holding her husband’s jacket – it has been retrieved from the local Gym. He left it there, complete with a large penknife in the pocket. He’s delighted to be re-united with both, but the knife isn’t quite street-legal. He gets a solemn warning, but nothing more.

There are unwritten rules underpinning all these encounters – rules that don’t even have to be mentioned in a country’s laws (and in England’s case simply aren’t – we have no written constitution). Rules I stand upon whether I’m being picked-up and moved bodily about, having my stuff manhandled, or having my husband temporarily mistaken for a criminal. Rules, now I come to think about it, that exist not out there in the land, but in my head. Rules in which I have confidence.

  1. I am physically safe – no-one will injure me or worse
  2. even if it takes some time – sometimes years – if I haven’t broken the law my name will be cleared, and if I have done so I am not due to suffer anything I’m incapable of bearing.

Now I have to imagine going through life without the protection of these unwritten rules – without that confidence – the confidence that anyone in law enforcement would always give me the benefit of the doubt. How would I feel about protesting against something – pollution, for example – that was doing the country genuine harm, when I know that to do so might put me in real danger? Would I still get out there and do what’s necessary?

Would you?

And in ordinary life, what if you got mistaken for a criminal? What if, heaven forbid, you were the victim of a crime but daren’t report it for fear of being, in your turn, criminalised and placed in danger? What if you witnessed a crime? What incentive would you have to report what you saw if to do so put you in the firing line?

What if, in other words, the nearest ‘mental model’ you had of your country’s law-enforcement was not the mostly-benign one I’ve encountered through the years – a force of inertia which, though it often gets in the way of progress, does at least prevent chaos – but one that more resembled an occupying army?

And then one of them, on camera, literally smiles as he is killing somebody.

So you set out to protest against this. Peacefully.

And then what happens?

 

Testing Times II – the Result

CovidFromBBC

Imagine an abandoned Army camp stretching over several acres of land. But with a surreal twist: this one happens to be in the expansive car-park between your favourite garden centre (also deserted) and one of those out-of-town places where you leave the car and get on a shuttle-bus into town.

Well – that’s what it looked like as we drove up. I say ‘we’ because I can’t drive: Marvellous Other 1/2 had to do the honours. Which begs the question: how do you get a Covid-19 test if neither you, nor anyone in your household, has access to both a valid driving licence and an actual car? “Home testing kits!” they all cry. We’ll come to that in a minute.

It was 10 o’clock on a breezy Sunday morning. I’d booked in early(!) to avoid the heaving crowds of anxious nurses and care-workers I’d expected, having seen countless news items about how hard it was to access these vital tests.

But as I said, the place was empty: we were literally the only punters! I guess running a car on a nurse or care-worker’s sparse wages isn’t a goer.

A second surprise came when the ‘download’ on my phone (one of those QR codes that looks like a smashed-up chessboard) actually worked. A white-shrouded volunteer scanned it through the car window and, satisfied that I wasn’t some kind of impostor, waved us on.

Other figures held up placards to direct us through a string-and-cone maze, between several small white military-looking gazebos (you’ve seen them on the news, right?). One chap mimed heart palpitations when we looked like not stopping in time. A shout through the window: Could I self-administer the test, or did I need someone to do it for me?

Now as I said, I’ve seen those things on the news. If you think you can push an elongated cotton-bud 8 inches up your own nose – or worse, 8 inches down your throat – without gagging then you are, I’m afraid, seriously mistaken. You’re likely, I fear, to bail after the first inch or so, not reach the places where the virus lurks, and come back with a false Negative.

So I chickened out and asked for help.

Even then it took the poor lass four goes on the throat part before I stopped choking for long enough.

People have apparently been waiting over a week for results from these tests, but I got mine on the Tuesday, and it came as a bitter disappointment:

Negative.

So now, until reliable Antibody tests are available to the general public (those tests, like everything else Covid-19-related here in the U.K., are being ‘ramped up’ even as our Government insists everything’s under control), I must go about my life not knowing whether I might catch, in the next six months or so, an illness that may very well kill me.