The rat as hero

Behold rat. Behold the magnificent, clever creature as it runs from the bin you have just opened or disappears into the nearest bush. Behold rat as it is cut open or drugged or injected to improve your health in the name of science, as many millions of its peers have been. Behold rat – though you may find that tricky, because the old adage that you are never more than six feet away from a rat is comprehensively skewered in this wonderful, charming book. Wonderful? Charming? Rats? Yes. Even Joe Shute, a man scared of the creatures, bravely takes two four-inch baby rats into his house and slowly grows to

His son’s death may have inspired some of Shakespeare’s greatest lines, but he never recovered from the loss

Maggie O’Farrell is much possessed by death. Her first novel, After You’d Gone (2000), chronicled the inner life of a young woman who finds herself comatose following a near-fatal car accident. And a recent piece of non-fiction, I Am, I Am, I Am (2017), gave an account of O’Farrell’s own numerous brushes with mortality. Her latest novel returns to this pre-occupation with the undiscovered country. In it she sets out to tell the imagined story of the life and death of Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, who perished at the age of 11, four years before his father wrote the play that would share his dead son’s name — in Elizabethan

A complicated bond: The Best of Friends, by Kamila Shamsie, reviewed

When I think of Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, I picture a pot boiling on a hob, the water level rising until it spills over the lip and onto the stove. In Best of Friends, the author’s seventh novel, the tension is still there, but the bubbles are contained. It’s more of a simmer, gentle but insistent – not unlike the ‘shared subtexts’ that pass between the protagonists. We first meet Maryam and Zahra as 14-year-olds. It’s the summer of 1988 in Karachi and the two girls are preoccupied with standard teenage stuff (budding bodies, boys) and the kind of concerns that sadly become standard when living under a ‘repellent dictator’

An empire crumbles: Nights of Plague, by Orhan Pamuk, reviewed

Welcome to Mingheria, ‘pearl of the Levant’. On a spring day, as the 20th century dawns, you disembark at this ‘calm and charming island’ south of Rhodes from a comfortable steamer after sailing from Smyrna, Piraeus or Alexandria. A crew of Greek or Muslim boatmen will row you to the picturesque harbour of Arkaz, flanked by the radiant White Mountain and the gloomy turrets of the medieval castle. The fragrances of honeysuckle, linden trees and the famous Mingherian roses waft over azure seas. Admire the ancient churches and newer mosques, the neo-classical State Hall, the grand buildings funded by the sultan’s government in faraway Istanbul. Savour figs, oil, nuts and

The ghostly ruins of vanished Britain

Take a walk in the English countryside and you get the impression that little has changed. The churches and farmhouses, the hedgerows and footpaths – much of this has been preserved for centuries. However, as Matthew Green argues in Shadowlands, there is also a history of lost towns and abandoned villages hidden beneath the tranquil surface. His book tells the stories of eight such places, as well as the disasters that led to their disappearance, offering a phantom history of Britain through vanished settlements and forgotten occupants. Shadowlands begins with the Neolithic village of Skara Brae in Orkney that was buried in sand several thousand years ago. It ends with

The polarising power of plague

Now that the government has kindly allowed us to go out again, I wonder if anyone has discovered the same social challenge I have encountered? Which is that almost nobody agrees on anything. I should pre-empt a possible line of attack here and acknowledge that I am aware of the case study I am basing this on. Still I fancy the problem is wider than myself. Of course we never did agree on everything. But, after a year of seclusion, it seems that as we de-bubble, the divergences are far greater than before. Not least regarding what we have just been through. It forks off at the very beginning. For

What happens next? Gauging the fallout from the pandemic

What just happened? Some 15 months after the pandemic first struck, it’s still horribly unclear, which is perhaps why there have been no decent books making sense of Covid-19. This is not just about a virus but a collision of politics, panic, digital media, human behaviour and incompetence. Niall Ferguson’s Doom looks at each of these aspects, putting them into historical perspective in a book of dazzling range and rigour. He offers several answers — and none of them is comforting. For most of human history, viruses were unexceptional — hard to research, because no one thought them remarkable. When plagues struck in the Middle Ages, we’d rush into quarantine,

A phoenix from the ashes: 17th-century London reborn

Tragically, the current pandemic lends this sparkling study of London in its most decisive century a grim topicality — for the city, during the most explosively expansive phase in its growth, also experienced the arrival of two of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse — war and pestilence — riding in to wreak havoc on an unprecedented scale. The 17th-century city may have narrowly escaped conquest and famine, but another Apocalyptic outrider — fire — also visited in 1666, leaving medieval London, with its filthy warren of narrow, timbered streets, in ashes. The upside, as Margarette Lincoln demonstrates, was that the cleansing inferno cleared the ground for London to become,

The aeroplane might be the world’s most dangerous invention

Is the aeroplane the most dangerous technology we’ve invented? Not because of bombs, climate change or crashes on cities, but because of how quickly a virus can spread around the globe.  Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of The Plague Year was published in 1722. Defoe was only five during London’s Great Plague but his verifiable narrative described its transport on Dutch shipping, recording his mathematical analysis predicting the spread of disease. He stated the need for self-isolation and how youths in pubs ignored social distancing. Infected people were confined for 40 days — hence ‘quarantine’. Modern scientists suggest Covid is unique, as people are infectious days before they have symptoms. But

Why people have sex in graveyards

The oldest churchyard in Torquay is being used by people openly having sex and sunbathing nude in broad daylight. This was how it was reported in the local newspaper, of course — ‘broad daylight’ is a phrase that is only ever used by subeditors trying to make things sound more depraved. (Who sunbathes except in broad daylight?) It was not the first such report since the pandemic began: in June, a couple were witnessed coupling in Brandwood Cemetery in Kings Heath, Birmingham; police were called amid concerns over public indecency, and fears that they may not even have been from the same household. A few weeks earlier, another pairing was

And end to decent dying

From 22 March 1986: They used to say that war is the ruin of serious soldiering. Too much disorder, too many accidents. So it could be said of the bubonic plague: it spoilt dying completely. There was so much to fear. Not merely a sudden, unexplained and incurable form of disease, since brevity of life and mysterious illness were commonplace; besides, there was no lack of plague-theories and official nostrums. What was truly dreadful was the subversion and mockery of all that was usually done to dignify the final moment, of the pains taken to celebrate death, and prevent him from doing irreparable harm to the community. So plague gave

A ‘loneliness pandemic’ could prove as dangerous as coronavirus

The subjugation of nature has formed a cornerstone of the human agenda. How surprising and humbling, then, to find our way of life so rapidly and unexpectedly undermined by a biological force that transcends identity and culture. Still worse, when we discover that the source of this chaos is a sub-microscopic viral particle whose genetic code — simpler than a bacterium — is barely compatible with a living entity. Yet it has brought global civilisation to a standstill. The stark and poetic prose of Paolo Giordano’s essay How Contagion Works conveys the existential angst of an Italian intellectual as he comes to terms with quarantine: the vulnerabilities, missed opportunities, loneliness,

Lessons from the plague village that isolated from the world

Locked contentedly into the rhythms of farming life and digging for lead on its Derbyshire Peak District slopes, the village of Eyam lay blissfully unaware of what was about to hit it, and propel it into the history books for ever. The Viccars family, the Reverend William Mompesson and his family, Elizabeth Hancock and her six children, 350 villagers at least… none had any inkling. London existed in most minds only through talk in the public house, stories from travelling merchants and perhaps the first periodicals beginning to circulate in England. The metropolis was half a world away, a foreign place, a foreign culture. News of the plague we now

War and plague have menaced theatres before, but rarely on this scale

It seems a long time ago now. I was meeting the artistic director of a pub theatre near Westminster on the afternoon of 16 March. Already it was clear that this was one of the worst days of his professional life. That evening’s performance of a John Osborne play had been cancelled because a cast member had caught a severe cold over the weekend. During the morning, four more shows had withdrawn their productions, and the theatre had nothing to present for the next eight weeks. As we spoke, his phone pinged. Another cancellation. The door swung open and the production manager came in with a look of doom on

Nature fights back with tooth and claw as we persist in destroying it

Where to turn in anxious and febrile times? One answer is to nature, or the ‘non-human living world’, which, despite the ravages inflicted on it by humans, continues to offer solace and hope to many. Such, at least, is a possibility linking these fine but quite different books. Lucy Jones’s starting point in Losing Eden is her own struggle with depression and addiction a few years back. She writes that three of the things that helped her recover — psychiatry, psychotherapy and the support of others — were straight-forward, but the fourth was more mysterious: a greater connection with the natural world. Surprised and interested, she embarked on investigating the