Influenza advice

In view of the current crisis, I thought it might be helpful to share this advice from the Daily Mail of February 24, 1919:

Sound advice, and I hope that my readers will take note of it.

I’ve been looking through the Daily Mail from June 1918 to June 1919, searching for the word ‘influenza’.

Over the year there are 464 results. that means an average of 1.5 articles a day. Most of the articles are brief factual reports, like this one:

A few articles contain more in the way of analysis, and some give an idea of public reaction. This one, for example, mentions hoarding and shortages (of whisky and brandy!), and the wearing of masks:

What is notably absent from the papers is the sort of blanket coverage that you find in the news media today, where the few salient facts are recycled endlessly. Equally absent (in this far more devastating epidemic) were government diktats reducing people’s freedom to live their lives as they wished. Lloyd George may have watered the workers’ beer and cut licensing hours, but he never closed all the pubs.

(Incidentally, did you notice Boris’s rhetorical flourish, talking of the ‘inalienable right’ of a Briton to visit the pub, before, precisely, alienating that right?)

In the early days of the epidemic, warring governments damped down mentions of influenza, as information potentially useful to the enemy (who kept a close eye on hints about civilian morale). But even after the war was over, the illness was rarely seen as big news, even as the death statistics mounted.

Perhaps illness was more accepted then as an inevitable fact of life. It was not so long since the cholera outbreaks of Victorian times, and nasty diseases like syphilis were an ever-present scourge. These days we have higher expectations of good health, maybe, and are more outraged when some nasty virus threatens us.

The 1918-1920 outbreak killed a very large number of people (targeting the young mostly, unlike the present nastiness, which is picking on the old). It seems not to have impinged largely on the public’s imagination as anything special, though. I have read quite a few novels of the early twenties, but I’m struggling to think of any that have the influenza epidemic as their theme. There are some in which the flu is used as a device for killing off a minor character, but none where it is presented as what it was: a greater killer than the war.

Maybe there are novels I’ve forgotten or missed? Perhaps my erudite readers can help me on this.

P.S. My major moan about the current health crisis is that the Kipling conference scheduled for April has inevitably been postponed. I was looking forward to it.

But, on the subject of Kipling, may I strongly recommend a programme that is currently on the Sky Arts schedule: Kipling: A Secret Life. Some good people (Jan Montefiore, Harry Ricketts and others) talk about Kipling and the events that made him the writer he was – his childhood and the deaths of his own children.

It’s very good indeed (except that they illustrate a section on the Battle of Loos with film of Passchendaele and the Somme.)


  1. Posted March 23, 2020 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    I suspect you’re right that an illness would not be as distressing as human-generated warfare.
    Also, perhaps the lack of diktats, the leaving the pubs open etc, may have contributed to the extremely high death rate?

      Posted March 23, 2020 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

      “perhaps the lack of diktats, the leaving the pubs open etc, may have contributed to the extremely high death rate?”

      James Niven, Medical Officer of Health for Manchester in the post-WWI flu epidemic (incidentally, when did the standard term become flu, rather than influenza?), ordered businesses and schools to close and reduced the death rate there compared with other places.

      Incidentally, Kipling’s poem ‘Our Fathers of Old’ from Rewards and Fairies seems suitably appropriate at the moment.

      • Posted March 23, 2020 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

        Roger –
        Thanks for reminding me of the poem, and especially of these two verses:

        Wonderful little, when all is said,
        Wonderful little our fathers knew.
        Half their remedies cured you dead–
        Most of their teaching was quite untrue–
        “Look at the stars when a patient is ill.
        (Dirt has nothing to do with disease),
        Bleed and blister as much as you will,
        Bister and bleed him as oft as you please.”
        Whence enormous and manifold
        Errors were made by our fathers of old.

        Yet when the sickness was sore in the land,
        And neither planets nor herbs assuaged,
        They took their lives in their lancet-hand
        And, oh, what a wonderful war they waged!
        Yes, when the crosses were chalked on the door-
        (Yes, when the terrible dead-cart rolled! )
        Excellent courage our fathers bore–
        None too learned, but nobly bold
        Into the fight went our fathers of old.

    Posted March 24, 2020 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    Those were the verses I was thinking of!

    • Posted March 25, 2020 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      When I read the government instruction to always keep six feet away from everyone you meet, the line of poetry that immediately comes to my mind is Browning’s ‘What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?’

      There were poems about the 1919 flu. Here’s a snatch from one (author unknown):

      When your head is blazing, burning
      And your brain is turning,
      Unto buttermilk from churning,
      It’s the Flu.
      When your joints are creaking, cracking,
      As if all the fiends were racking,
      All the devils were attacking,
      It’s the Flu.

      To read the whole poem, go to

  3. Posted April 12, 2020 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    There is a new book on literature and the flu pandemic of 1918-20: Elizabeth Outka, Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature (Columbia UP, 2019). There are some American works explicitly on the pandemic, such as Katherine Ann Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows. Outka argues that the flu is an important if subtle theme in a number of other works, such as Mrs Dalloway and The Waste Land. // Readers who have access to JStore can download chapters of the book there.

    Best wishes, Trudi

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