How It All Fell Down


My father, who was a scientist, always told me that he preferred American science textbooks to British ones because of their clarity and simplicity. It allowed them to communicate ideas more easily. A few of his colleagues were snobbish; ‘They write in baby talk’, said one. My father felt that the style didn’t matter if it reached more people. He was right, of course.

This is the Agatha Christie theory. The author used one third of her normal vocabulary to tell complex stories simply, and by doing so created a world market in whodunnits. You’d think it would be a trick every writer would employ but no; I don’t, and no-one I know does. Why not? Snobbery, arrogance, a desire to rise above the baseline?

In 2019, the Global Health Security Index, a group that ranked all of the countries on the planet according to their readiness to deal with a global pandemic, rated the USA No.1 and Britain No.2. By 2021 there had been close to 130,000 deaths in the UK from the second most prepared country in the world. That is how badly Boris de Pfeffel Johnson fucked up. America will top out a little short of half a million deaths. To put that in perspective, World War II only managed to kill 290,000 Americans.

The knock-on effects of the virus are very far from over. It will probably return in the late autumn and winter of 2021, as all viruses do, and kill more. But its side effects will last for at least a generation. Many countries have failed to vaccinate – useless, bickering France is now more concerned with electing the Neo-Nazi National Front head Marine Le Pen than saving its vulnerable population – and without majority vaccination there can be no firebreak in the pandemic at a global scale. Even Australia, which closed its borders and put its fingers in its ears, has created the perfect conditions for a next-round clean sweep.

The invisible costs are now becoming visible. Hundreds of thousands of life-threatening illnesses were not diagnosed in the shutdown or reduction of medical services. My own cancer was scanned five months late due to the pandemic, during which time it advanced to its terminal, irreversible stage.

Michael Lewis’s ‘The Premonition: A Pandemic Story’ is therefore more than just pertinent reading. When a single vaccine-making factory in Liverpool became contaminated in 2004 half of America’s flu supply was lost. Alarm bells rang, but by 2019 global advance knowledge had been replaced by complacency.

It was known early on that if a vaccine could be supplied to catch a virus before it mutated it would need to be administered not to the old, whose movements were stable and greatly reduced, but to the young, active, sexually prolific, traveling the world, intimately connected with others. The scientists had a premonition of where the answers lay, but its administration was down to politicians.

The UK had in power an anomaly, a fluke; a branded liar and charlatan braggart, a hollow Upper Class Twit with no experience of the real world. One morning Londoners awoke to discover that he had become the city’s mayor. Horrified and disbelieving, they watched as he attempted to build monuments to himself like some deranged African or Burmese dictator. Treated as a laughing stock, he was waved away, only to bounce Tigger-like into the ultimate vanity job; Prime Minister. The first thing he did was strip the cabinet of advisors and replace them with cronies.

Cometh the hour, cometh the wrong man. In America the situation was actually worse, for it had elected a man who was not even a politician, whose ludicrous reign ended with armed thugs storming the Capitol. Except that Trump continued to wreak damage on his own party by smashing it up after he had been kicked out. In Britain the blame was neatly shifted onto the advisors, as even the most rabid UK press became apologists for Johnson.

Lewis tells his story by following the science with enormous clarity and simplicity. It should make readers angry if they just connect it to their own experiences. Yet the author also exhibits the most prominent and desirable of American traits; optimism. What’s interesting is that this is no ‘I told you so’ diatribe of 20-20 hindsight, but actually feels like advance warning, a message from the very recent past to the future.

In years to come a definitive global account will be written of the catastrophe, and then we can weep.

19 comments on “How It All Fell Down”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    We rage against the Myanmar junta for killing more than 700, including at least 43 children, as a crime against humanity. Yet Johnson and Trump will very likely never be made to answer for similar crimes in the deaths of tens of thousands if not, in the case of the US, hundreds of thousands. I don’t see anything similar to the Nuremberg or Tokyo War Crimes trials on the horizon. Simply written off as collateral damage from incompetence. Can’t blame a guy for incompetence, now can you ?

  2. Stu-I-Am says:

    Forgive the drama. I know from personal experience it’s not something you want to dwell on, but five minutes after having read your passing comment about cancer, I had to return and re-read the paragraph to make certain I had read it correctly. It then literally took my breath away. As a latecomer to your blog, if not your books, I had no idea. Tell me I’m missing something. Tell me there is hope. Tell me it’s none of my business. Tell me a lie.

  3. Peter+T says:

    Some of the points in today’s blog crossed my mind when I was reading the previous one: ‘Press clippings from hell.’ Of course, today’s aren’t the simple story of an unknown dipstick screwing up; they are news headlines of elected representatives and leaders who happen to be dangerous lunatics.

    Maybe I’m a pompous Englishman, but, broadly, I prefer UK science books. Of course, there are exceptions such as Feynman’s big red books. I also tend to favour older texts from the 1970s and before. I’d better not wander off into a tour of science books… but Dirac’s Principles, can there be a more beautiful piece of writing?

  4. joel d ivins says:

    and here in the US, although I am thankful for biden and what he is trying to do, it all just slowly gets worse…we are coming up on the 100th anniversary of the worst domestic terrorist action, the 1921 Greenwood, Ok massacre. not only were an estimated 300 people killed, but almost 2000 lost their homes, businesses, churches, etc. planes flew over that night and bombed that portion on Tulsa…in the following days and weeks, not one black person would receive any insurance payments…the entire thing would be played down and covered up and forgotten…and now, the city is making millions of dollars planning memorials and events…while the three remaining survivors get nothing…the families, get nothing…and it goes on…it can be very overwhelming…there is never any justice or consequences…not for boris, trump, no one…but, thankfully, i read a lot, listen to lots of music and watch things that i enjoy and help me escape now and then…bryant and may featuring in there, because they are a hoot and i have to be very committed to the story to enjoy it…enjoy your weekend.

  5. Bruce+Rockwood says:

    Don’t give up on defeating your cancer. There are new therapies under development all the time. I don’t know if you could check out specialists in the US or elsewhere if you running into a wall in the NHS. Hang in there.

  6. admin says:

    The NYT has been covering the anniversary of the Greenwood massacre, which I knew nothing about beforehand. An unbelievable tragedy.
    As for the cancer thing, it is what it is. I’m functional at the moment and writing like a demon. There are still some more horrible press clippings to come.

  7. Liz+Thompson says:

    Write like a demon, we all want to see what you write. Keep giving us press howlers. If fighting fate by writing does the trick, stick to it.

  8. Brooke says:

    Lewis is always good… after the fact (Remember The Big Short). The US story is horrifying. E.g. With the SARS crisis, the US developed a “playbook” for emergency response to pandemic and biological terrorism and a liaison was placed in China. DT removed the liaison and claimed there was no playbook. Unfortunately, there is much more of this nonsense…4 long years, 33+ M cases of illness and 595K deaths. And in case sickness and death are low on your values scale, low GDP growth (adjusted for 4 yrs), even compared to recession.

  9. Peter+T says:

    Brooke, It’s much safer to be good after the fact. The only thing worse than not foreseeing a disaster is foreseeing one that happens … and then being blamed for it.

  10. Brooke says:

    Peter T, how right you are! When Bill Gates spoke out about his foundation and healthcare experts around the world predicting a pandemic, the “you-know-who’ers” immediately blamed him, WHO, etc. for letting the virus escape from the secret lab.

  11. Brooke says:

    Re: Tulsa– I think the 100th anniversary event has been cancelled. Why? The elderly survivors demanded reparations…

  12. Jan says:

    The only shred of hope and I know this can be of no help Chris is that this novel virus will become considerably less novel in just a few more years – the virus will continue to mutate certainly but our immune systems will become in a sense more attuned to the virus and more capable of taking it on. Through the first jabs and the updates but also through the constant covid exposure which will become the norm.

    What can you say as to the rest of it. Why did we not model our behaviours on that of the nation’s of the far east who have been most successful in combating the spread of infection?

    Early on parts of NHS hospitals became very much converted into institutions to tackle widespread covid infections to keep the system propped up to stop the NHS from going under and being overwhelmed. No comfort there for people suffering from other maladies.

    The politicians got into dreadful messes so it would seem. The health service at every level as far I can see did its best. No comfort there though not for the relatives of those who succumbed to the virus or for any other reason. What can be said?

  13. Stu-I-Am says:

    Nature plays the long game. She allows us to construct and divert, to discover and prevent — asking only respect in return. But should we forget in arrogance — always she will out.

  14. Stu-I-Am says:

    Wonder if that John Lewis furniture from 11 Downing that Carrie Symonds complained about has showed up on Gumtree yet — now that she and Boris have tied the knot ? Understand he actually got a haircut for the nuptials. Just one, mind you.

  15. Joel says:

    As long as political parties allow idiots like Johnson to stand for public office, he will always play the lovable rogue card, the one who doesn’t bother with rules, and who doesn’t like (ahem) a maverick? I had the dodgy pleasure (ahem again) of meeting BoJo when he was effing up the London Mayorality – he’s clueless, has a memory which makes goldfish seem like geniuses, and as someone else who had been obliged to work for him for a while later said (of Johnson): “He is oblivious to anyone’s business but his own.”

    In our meetings, we discovered the way to get to Johnson, or more accurately his minders (he’s never allowed out on his own if he has to meet people) was to let him sing-and-dance to his well-learned scripts, then find a way to go back to the same subject(s) five minutes later. Of course, as the epitome of good manners, he always allowed that, ignoring his minders who knew what was coming. We raised our ‘supplementary’ points and showed beyond reasonable doubt m’lud that he had forgotten everything he’d just said and virtually sworn on his own life he’d take on board. He’s short-tempered too – any threat to his honourable integrity (which doesn’t exist but he doesn’t know that any more) and he’s ready to punch out your headlights – he almost succeeded with me, in front of witnesses!

    People still vote for the Blond Buffoon – because Labour in the UK hasn’t got a clue on how to address people’s genuine needs and desires. Johnson is Labour’s greatest asset, and Labour is its own worst enemy. And (in England at least), there’s no-one else to tip the balance, other than the nutters who drove us out of Europe (admitted, the EU desperately needs reform but you can’t fight for that from the outside) on an avalanche of lies and misdirection.

    I’m a pragmatic pessimist – plan for the worst and if it doesn’t happen, yippee! The worst has happened – the pandemic, the shameful idiot incompetent UK government, a bullied and broken BBC (which is also its own worst enemy, self-inflicted), a blind media… It has to become better, but when and how does that start?

  16. Stu-I-Am says:

    I’d love to see a straight remake of “Vicious,” the sitcom with Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen called “Clueless,” with Trump and Johnson characters. Just imagine, an entire episode on hair. Must see TV.

  17. Brooke says:

    Beware…of focusing on BJ and DT…remember their elections were orchestrated by the wealthy/powerful artfully playing the strings of identity politics. Selective attention by press and pundits to their personalities and foibles obscures and distracts us… watch out for continuing efforts to “privatize” public services, be suspicious of “centralization” which becomes outsourcing, etc.

  18. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Agreed, Brooke.
    Power behind the throne.

  19. Paul C says:

    Michael Lewis is an excellent writer – in The Big Short he even managed to make economics lucid and exciting for a layman like me. Let’s hope a writer of his brilliance writes a similar volume about the UK pandemic shortly.

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