Ian Leslie was born in 1972 and lives in London, where he combines careers in advertising and writing. He has written about politics, culture, marketing and psychology for Prospect, the Guardian, the Times and the BBC. He blogs about all these things and more at Marbury. Ian is the author of To be President: Quest for the White House 2008. His new book, Born Liars: Why We Can't Live Without Deceit, is published by Quercus in the UK and is currently Book of The Week on Radio 4. Here Ian writes about Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map.
Ian Leslie on The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
Anyone who has explored the area around Carnaby Street in London will know how oddly distant is the bustle of Regent Street, though it is only a few feet away. There are no clear sightlines to the thoroughfare, because there are no open conduits. It is almost as if the city wants you to turn around and head back into Soho, rather than venture out on to the avenue. This is no accident. John Nash designed Regent Street partly as a cordon sanitaire that would separate the well-to-do neighbourhood of Mayfair from the working-class community of Soho. In the last week of August, 1854, Nash's design did its job. The denizens of Berkeley Square would barely have been aware of the scourge that was tearing its way through Golden Square, less than half a mile away.
The plague was known as cholera, and for five days it wrought deadly havoc on Soho's tightly packed inhabitants. Hundreds of people died agonizing deaths, often within 12 hours of taking sick, with most of the fatalities occurring within five square blocks. No help came, because nobody knew what the cause was. Sick families were left to tend themselves in dark, suffocating rooms, as the dead were wheeled down the street by the cartload. For some, the epidemic was further evidence of the depravity and bad habits of the poor, and reaffirmed the need for urban barricades between classes. For two Soho residents - an anaesthetist called John Snow and a clergyman called Henry Whitehead - it was a puzzle in urgent need of solving. The Ghost Map tells the story of how Snow and Whitehead discovered what lay behind the outbreak, and how, in the process, they helped to solve the biggest challenge of the age: making cities liveable for everyone.
Snow, a scientist, provided the hypothesis and analytical intellect. Whitehead, a clergyman, provided social intelligence: he knew everyone in the neighbourhood and was able to help reconstruct the movements of those in the affected households. The two men put together a map of the area that tracked the spread of the disease (the 'ghost map'). It was this that led Snow to conclude that the deaths could all be traced back to a water pump in Broad Street, which fitted his theory that cholera was caused by the consumption of contaminated water. Following Snow's testimony the city authorities reluctantly agreed to shut down the pump, and the deaths ceased. Nevertheless, his argument was met with scepticism. The prevailing view of cholera was that it was a miasmal disease - that's to say, a lethally bad smell. The idea that it might hide in the water supply struck most experts as absurd. So it was that, though they were built partly in response to the Soho outbreak, the city's first underground sewers drained its cesspools into the Thames, from where London's drinking water was drawn. The result: thousands more cholera deaths.
In Steven Johnson's telling, Snow's ghost map was significant not just because it helped solve one of the biggest killers of the age but also because it helped to save London from itself. In his opening pages Johnson introduces us to a city on the verge of drowning in its own filth. The number of people in London had nearly tripled in the preceding 50 years, yet the city still depended on an Elizabethan infrastructure. London's 90 square miles contained two and a half million people, every one of whom excreted, but its only waste management system was formed by the Night Soil men, who would scoop up the contents of cesspits and cart them off to the country to sell to farmers as fertiliser. Inevitably, London's burial grounds were piled ever-higher with corpses.
By taking a bird's-eye view and tracking the spread of a disease through a population, Snow more or less invented the modern science of public health. Moreover, by identifying water as a potential disease-carrier, his work led - eventually - to the construction of Bazalgette's sewers (this time, the sewers carried the waste out of London, to treatment plants). These advances, in turn, made the modern city a viable proposition around the world. Up until the late 19th century, the vast agglomeration of millions into a relatively small space was seen, not unreasonably, as an invitation to apocalypse. London's public health innovations not only ensured its own future survival but enabled the mass migration of humanity from country to city that continues apace today.
I've probably recommended The Ghost Map to more people than I have any other book, and it almost always scores a bullseye. It is a cracking read. This is a story that has been told before, but Johnson does three things that make his version feel entirely new and urgent. First, he writes it as a thriller. The story is told day by day, in vivid, human detail, and provides all the pleasures of a detective story - one with unusually high stakes - as Snow and Whitehead race to get to the bottom of what is causing the deaths. Second, Johnson makes it a story of big ideas. He is one of those annoying people who seems as at home with the humanities as with the sciences; he can write fluently and compellingly about microbial organisms, the history of beer, the ideas of Jane Jacobs, and the uses of the internet. You never feel as if he's doing this to show off; it is rather because he sees it as his job to make connections between phenomena that are usually treated separately. After all, Johnson argues, this is how Snow was able to make his breakthrough. Finally, he makes of this historical episode a story about the future. By the end of the book we are reading about the potential effects on a city of a biological attack (basically, not great), the possibility of new and lethal viral epidemics and the scientific race to neuter them, and the role of cities in combating global warming.
Ghost Map is the story of how cities have been able to fulfil their greatest purpose: allowing people to mingle in great numbers, without the need for quarantine lines.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]