A new study of the Black Death in London has concluded that the disease which wiped out perhaps half of the capital's population in the mid-14th century was not bubonic plague spread by the immigrant black rat from Asia ( The Black Death in London by Barney Sloane, The History Press Ltd 2011). When the plague struck in 1348 nobody had a clue about the nature of such diseases and it was only much later in history that there was speculation about the cause of the epidemic. I am not sure when the black rat and the flea it carried was first implicated but certainly there was no knowledge of the nature of bubonic plague until the nasty bug, Yersinia pestis, was identified in 1894 during an outbreak of the disease in Hong Kong. It is transmitted to humans by a flea that lives on a variety of rodents, one of which is the black rat. When there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in India in 1994 I remembered that I had a book on my shelves by a zoologist called Graham Twigg which disputed the received wisdom that the black rat was to blame for the black death ( The Black Death: a biological reappraisal, Batsford 1984 ). On the one hand, said Twigg the small black rat ( rattus rattus ) is rather a timid creature and not the aggressive invader imagined by historians. It is a tree rat by nature and very acrobatic. I can vouch for that as I once arranged to film the only black rat surviving in captivity in England. It was kept by the firm Rentokil and I wanted to get a sequence of it for a wildlife film I was making. When we first went to see it, the rat did not look well, but demonstrated a little of its gymnastic ability. Sadly that was more or less its last performance and it died before we got the camera in. Twigg argued that the spread of plague did not match the movement of the black rat and that descriptions of the disease did not tally that well with the symptoms of bubonic plague. He speculated that anthrax was a possible cause of the black death. In 1994 when the Indian outbreak brought back the black rat story I got in touch with Twigg and researched an article which was published in the Independent in October. I spoke to Philip Zeigler who had written a book on The Black Death in 1969 in which what might be called the "classic" account of the origin of the 14th century black death was formulated. I summarised it in my article: " It goes like this: bubonic plague was endemic in parts of central Asia before a series of natural disasters disturbed the ecology of the region and drove the rodents, fleas and bacillus westwards from their natural habitat. Ziegler wrote: 'It was, above all, rattus rattus, the tough, nimble, by nature vagabond, black rat that made the move.' Carrying the fatal flea, it invaded the Middle East and then Europe, reaching the south coast of England in 1348, perhaps on the ships of returning Crusaders." Twigg had taught this to his students for many years before he began to question it. Why would an essentially tropical disease spread like that in a cold northern climate? And was it likely that the black rat, huddled into the artificial warmth of ships and houses, had enabled a disease to spread so fast. I put Twigg's thesis to a number of historians. Zeigler thought it interesting but most other historians brushed it aside. They were not about to re-open the case on the black rat. The little rodent is history now anyway, perhaps surviving in one or two ports and turning up now and again on ships. Our resident rat is the brown rattus norvegicus which is thought to have arrived around 1728, ushering in the Georgian era: another name for it is the Hanoverian rat. The brown rat is a ground dweller and burrower occupying a different niche from the tree loving black rat. Bubonic plague has not gone away. There were major epidemics in the twentieth century, one in China which broke out among trappers who were infected by fleas in the pelts of marmots. Whether or not the black rat was responsible for the black death, it is certainly not regarded now as the first culprit when there is an outbreak of plague. It seems quite likely, too, that the black rat had nothing much do with the black death in London or elsewhere.
Just before the looting and burning began in London I was thinking about putting down some thoughts about house sparrows. Those in my back garden seem to have gone on days out somewhere now that their young have fledged and I hear them return in the evening. I have no idea where they go but I like to imagine them off in the countryside or down the River Thames taking a dip in the river. They enjoy a bath in the pottery dishes we leave out for them in the back garden. At the same time as the scenes reminiscent of the Blitz filled the TV screen I read a review of a book about the wartime campaign that became known as Dig for Victory (The Spade as Mighty as the Sword: The Story of World War Two's 'Dig for Victory' Campaign by Daniel Smith Aurum Press). Before 1939, Britain was absolutely reliant on food shipped in from around the world. At the outbreak of war, the German U-Boats laid siege and the Government appealed to the nation to start producing home grown crops and livestock. The campaign became known as Dig For Victory. It is often forgotten now the degree to which the British people, fiercely proud of their refusal to accept authority unthinkingly, knuckled down when faced with a real threat to their independence. The Ministry of Information produced propaganda worthy of any dictatorship and even when the war was over the huge posters produced by the Labour Government urging everyone to make a greater effort was one of the inspirations for George Orwell's 1984 ( he finished writing the book in 1948). Daniel Smith's book on Dig for Victory reminds us that the Ministry of Information identified as one of the most notorious enemies of the British people the humble house sparrow. The sparrow is one of those birds ornithologists call " commensal": it has become accustomed to living close to man and to rely on handouts from the domestic table for its food. Related to the African weaver birds, the sparrow appears to have travelled across Europe with the spread of arable farming. It has the beak of a grain eating bird–though, when feeding young, the adult sparrows make a big effort to catch insects. They also have a taste for newly sprouted seedlings. In the countryside they have always been regarded as something of a pest, but in towns they were tolerated as one of those creatures which had adapted to urban life and brought the natural world to the hostile environment of the city. In London and other cities any piece of available ground was turned into an allotment in the Dig for Victory campaign. This included the many bomb sites which were left behind after the Blitz. Once the land was cleared and dug over the seedlings went in and the crop eagerly awaited. However, many Londoners woke one morning to discover that a flock of sparrows had decimated their little arable crop. The Ministry of Agriculture issued a decree that the house sparrow was " Hitler's Feathered Friend" and should be destroyed ruthlessly. The public were asked to spare the little "hedge sparrow", or dunnock, which was regarded as an ally as it is an insect eater. I doubt if many people had the heart to kill sparrows and resorted to other means to protect their wartime crops: netting is pretty effective. But the edict to kill sparrows is a reminder of a Britain we have all but forgotten about, but might begin to revive in the current atmosphere of anxiety about our domestic peace. The torching of parts of London took my attention away from the swifts I had been watching every night, wondering when they would leave for Africa. Last night there was no sign of them and I imagine they are already in to their 14,000 mile journey to their wintering grounds. I just hope they got away from their rooftop nests before the fires burned in Tottenham and Croydon and Enfield. As for my community of house sparrows, I trust they will be back home as autumn sets in and they see out the winter on a diet of the luxury food I put out to attract goldfinches: sunflower kernels.
It is easy to forget now how innocent young people were in the early 1960s. We had perhaps heard about drugs but we had never seen any, not in Richmond, Surrey certainly where I was a reporter on a local newspaper. However, by a strange quirk of fate, I found myself at the centre of a major drug scare which rang alarm bells well beyond the town hall and the local police station. When I left school at 17 I had a variety of jobs, imagining all the time the terse paragraph that would describe me on the back of my first novel. After working as bus conductor, petrol pump attendant and shop assistant Weightman devoted himself to writing.....Nearly all of my friends went to university and by the time I was twenty I was beginning to feel a social distance from them. While I wore a suit to work they dressed how they pleased and they could experiment with drink and drugs in a way I would not have dared. I married very young and while working on the local newspaper had a wife and two children. We lived in a rented house which had been bought by the council to be demolished for a road widening scheme. ( The house still stands). As I had a place to stay I would be visited from time to time by old school friends. It was on one of these visits that I learned about the alleged hallucinogenic properties of the attractive climbing flower Morning Glory. A friend at university in the north of England had read a scientific paper which said that the seeds of the flowers, whatever the variety, contained lysergic acid, in other words LSD. Intrigued by this we bought some packets of the seeds from Richmond Garden Shop and I ground them up in the baby mouli. I did not eat any myself but my friend had some on bread and jam. He behaved oddly for a while, giggling a lot although I was not at all convinced he was hallucinating. In fact I was pretty sure he was stone cold sober but intent on giving the impression that he was in fact "tripping." At the time one of my duties on the newspaper was "Kew Calls". This was a lovely day out in the summer, down by the Thames to visit the Port of London Authority station to see if any whales had been sighted and then a stroll over to historic Kew Gardens in search of some plant stories. I had access to the library and thought to look up Morning Glory seeds. Surprisingly I found a reference to a study of their drug content which confirmed the lysergic acid belief of my friend from college. This was all I needed for my story. I could reveal that Kew Gardens had a "dossier" –this term was popular with hack's at the time–on Morning Glory seeds. I cannot remember quite how the story appeared in my newspaper but it was quickly picked up by a local freelance. He sold it to the People and I can still remember the first paragraph which brought me out in a cold sweat: " Party going teenagers have found a new source of hallucinogen drug LSD: it is being sold openly in Richmond Garden Shop....." Within days we heard on the radio: " Here is the News. Morning Glory seeds: the Home Office has called for a full report......" My friend, back at University was angry and anxious. I kept my head down. It did not take the Home Office long to discover that about a ton of the seed was required to produce on little dose of lysergic acid. The story faded away. On the paper it was considered a great scoop and I was encouraged by the other young reporters to put in for a pay rise. I was smartened up and prepared for a showdown with the editor, a white haired, retiring gentleman who spoke with a kind of nasal whine. I knocked on his door and was told to come in. He was writing at his desk, perhaps a little gem for the Across the Walnuts and Wine diary column. "Yes?" He asked. " Mr Grove, " I said:" Do you not think I am worth more than £16 10s a week?" Without any hesitation or discussion he replied: " No Mr Weightman". I was encouraged by my fellow reporters to teach him a lesson. " Get another job." There was one going on the Brighton Evening Argus and I got it: working in the Bognor Regis office. I had not been there long when I got a call from a woman journalist on the Daily Mail. She worked for the Charles Greville column. Could I tell her about the Morning Glory seed story which had just been officially dismissed as of no consequence. I told her the whole thing without imagining it would make a story. Then it appeared with headline: " How a drug story, took root, flowered, withered and died...." Naively I complained to the Press Council that I had not been told that they were planning to publish anything. I got little sympathy. I was, after all, a fellow journalist.
I was enticed by excellent reviews to see the Canadian "art house" film Meek's Cutoff recently. It was one of the most tedious pieces of cinema I have ever endured without a beginning, an ending or a plot and featuring only two just about recognisable characters. The director, Kelly Reichardt , was quoted as saying she wanted to portray a different, feminine view of the great trek westwards in mid-nineteenth century America. Sure enough she has a heroine who challenges the macho trapper and guide Stephen Meek's crude and bloodthirsty attitudes towards Native Americans and attempts to bring some civility to the desperate lost wagon train that is the cast of the film. In itself, the film made no sense at all. We just saw the three ox-drawn wagons rumbling over a barren landscape not at all sure where it was headed as their guide seemed to have lost his way. What they are short of is water. We have no idea where their food comes from or what it is. A lone Indian appears on the horizon, sometimes standing, sometimes on horse back. Trapper Meek sets off with a wagontrainer to get him and brings back the hapless Native bound like some kind of human steer. Meek wants to kill him: the heroine points her musket at Meek to stop him. They all wander on with the Native who from time to time emits a chant the meaning of which is known only to himself and Kelly Reichardt the film's director. At the end we do not know what happens to the wagon train. I was reminded of the old satirical re-working of the introduction to radio crime series: " These stories are true: only the facts have been changed to protect the innocent. " I knew nothing about the real Stephen Meek so I looked him up to see if I could make sense of the film. Sure enough there is a modicum of truth in it, but much more in the way of blatant and inexcusable distortion. The experiences of the huge wagon trains that crossed Oregan in 1845 are pretty well documented. Stephen Meek was a well known and respected trapper who was paid $5 dollars a wagon. In the film Meek is a loner. In reality he was married to one of the women on the wagon train. At one time there were 198 wagons, 2299 head of cattle, and 811 head of oxen and more than 1,000 pioneers being led by Meek. They ran in to trouble when he offered to take some of the party on "short cut" and they could not find water. About twenty pioneers, adults and children, died. Meek was blamed. However, the majority survived and they did so partly, if not entirely, with the assistance of native Americans with whom Meek was able to converse in a simple way. In time the Meek Cutoff became a recognised detour on the Oregon trail. In short, as a depiction of the experiences of pioneers on the Oregan trail in 1845 the film Meek's Cutoff is a travesty. Nothing in it is true to character nor does any of it seem to be derived from the many first hand accounts left by these rugged pioneers. A contrast is the film The King's Speech. There are innumerable historical inaccuracies and a few anachronisms, but the relationship between the therapist and the timid and reluctant King, whose stammer makes public speaking terrifying, is essentially true and believable. There are some very odd aspects to the film. Why, for example, would a man with rooms in Harley Street live in the East End of London? Of course, he didn't. It was daft invention but it did not seem to matter. There is an excellent website which monitors the depiction of real historical events on film put together by the historian Alex von Tunzelmann for the Guardian newspaper Reel History. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/series/reelhistory
Here is a little verse I wrote in May 1977 when I was working on New Society magazine. I had been sent a press release by the Environmental Health Officers' Association with dire warnings of the hazards of the street parties planned for the Queen's Silver Jubilee. The Hazards of the Street party by Gavin Weightman Beware, beware, the Jubilee The hazards of the street party Heed well those men of cleanly stealth Officers of Environmental Health Don't let your cough Pollute the broth Cook well the frozen fowl Keep down the toll Of sausage rolls Safeguard the festive bowel Use paper cups You don't wash up And bandage well your sores Yours boils and spots Could spoil the lot'Tis rash to flout these laws Beware, beware the Jubilee The deafening noise of revelry Keep amps within 200 watts And aim them at some central spot Too fierce a noise Will spoil our joys Don't drown our loyalty Heed the frown And " Turn it down!" In the name of Royalty Beware, beware the Jubilee The dirty cup of poisoned tea The decibels that spoil the fun Then, from Environmental Health "Well done!"