Monday musings on Australian literature: Spanish flu

COVID-19, history tells us, is a one in 100 year event, the last such event being the Spanish flu of 1918 to 1920. This week, I thought I’d share some references to the Spanish flu from Trove – not news reports about the course of the flu itself, but some random references that indicate the flu’s legacy in various ways over the succeeding decade.

Jokes at the time …

Just like we are seeing now. Here is one from the Fitzroy City Press of 3 January 1920:


It was in the Spanish ‘flu period, and old Oppigar lay at death’s door. The priest came and told him he must forgive his enemies. Oppigar promised to do so with the single exception of Peter Svingen, against whom he had a very special grudge. But the priest insisted that even Peter must be forgiven. “All right then,” said Oppigar, ” I will forgive Peter also – but if I get well I’ll have it out with the old scoundrel!”

References in the following years …

In 1925, Perth’s Sunday Times of 31 May 1925 ran a story about the new cross-word craze that was sweeping the world, even reaching places like France and Italy. The article, ascribed to Twilight, is titled “The cross-word flu”. It takes the form of a conversation between a cynic, a cynosure (how many newspaper readers today would know that word), and others about the cross-word craze. The cynic starts it off:

“It was hardly to be expected,” re-marked our cynic, “that France would embrace the cross-word puzzle. France has suffered too many cross-purposes, double-crosses, and heard too many cross-words because she cannot forget the myriad crosses that dot, like forests, her fair provinces, to become enamored of a game whose name re-minds her of the bitterest things.”

To which the cynosure replies:

“True,” replied the cynosure, “France has puzzles enough at home, and the crosses that everywhere make memorial of her infinite sacrifice in the cause of the world’s liberty are at the same time mute warnings of what lurks threatening at her northern border; and further north in the land of the Bear. The marriage of the Bear with the Monkey has provided too big and perturbing a problem, without the importation of play puzzles from America.”

And here the cynic refers to the Spanish flu:

“As dangerous as Spanish ‘flu,” re-joined the cynic, “is the label French journalists have tagged to ‘cross-words.’ They warn the people to keep away from the new trans-Atlantic craze. One paper reminds its readers of a Frenchman who, before he died in a lunatic asylum, used to carry a paper, and pencil in his pocket and at parties would say, “Help me, my dear. I have lost my appetite and sleep because I cannot solve this problem.'”

I love the idea of cross-words being so popular, so engrossing, they were “as dangerous as the Spanish ‘flu“. The article goes on at some length discussing the craze. “A big tea-room proprietor” suggests “that nowadays all of us had mental worries enough without manufacturing new ones and calling them games”. It’s an entertaining piece – but interesting too with its references to the political situation, to the just-finished war, and also for its discussion about whether cross-words improve your mind or are just fun! Sounds exactly like current discussions about whether doing cross-words and sudokus ward off dementia, or just make you better at doing them!

As the years wore on, other references were made to the ‘flu, including by Canadian-American humorist and poet Walt Mason, whose pieces were published in Australian papers. On 24 April 1927, Brisbane’s Sunday Mail ran a piece of his called “No certainty”,

No man can with safety wager that the luck he knows to-day,
be it minor luck or major will not wilt and blow away.
None can say with show of reason that disease will pass him by,
that he won’t be, for a season, on a sick bed high and dry.
None can say what passing motor may assault and knock him flat,
flatter than a Yarmouth bloater, ruining his Sunday hat.
When we’re feeling strong and nifty, fit to struggle and to win,
it seems folly to be thrifty; better blow the money in.
We feel sure the future’s holding every blessing we desire,
and the wise man’s constant scolding only fills our breasts with ire.
But, behold, we faint and sicken as our labors we pursue,
and our pulses throb and quicken, and we’re down with Spanish flu.
Or perchance an auto climbs us where the hoaking lizzies fly,
and an undertaker times us, figuring on when we’ll die.
Then for weeks we loll and languish, wearing plasters night and day,
thinking in the deepest anguish of the bills we cannot pay.
While the torment racks and rages we resolve, if we get well,
we will listen to the sages and the shining truths they tell.

I’ve quoted the lot because Mason died in 1939 which I believe puts this out of copyright.

Walter Reed Hospital Flu Ward, 1918-19, Harris & Ewing photographers, via Library of Congress, Public Domain

Two years later, and about a decade after the flu, The Port Macquarie News and Hastings River Advocate published another piece by Walt Mason called “After the ‘flu” (21 September 1929). I found this also-rhyming piece in multiple Australian papers. Only some were attributed to Mason; others had no attribution at all.

The piece starts:

I had nine kinds of Spanish ‘flu, with sundry German brands thrown in; all day I coughed and said, ‘Ker-choo!’, all night I coughed and sneezed like sin.

The doctor said, as at my side he mixed up pills to feed my face, ‘The wonder is you have not died! I never saw so bad a case. I’ve seen a hundred taken down, I’ve seen them like the ripe grain fall; a thousand men are sick in town, but you are sicker than them all. It is a feather in my cap that I have pulled you through the strife; that you still loiter on the map, and breathe the well-known breath of life.’

And on it goes, describing what a wonder it is that he survived. Pronounced cured, he wants to brag to his friends:

There is no sense in being ill unless it gives you an excuse to talk about the doctor’s bill, and boast of pain to beat the deuce.

But they show no interest, calling his sickness fake, or telling him

You have your gall to talk of pain! A tin-horn ailment like the ‘flu. Your talk is frivolous and vain. Just wait until you have the gout, your toe swelled bigger than a brick! Then you may prance around, old scout, and claim that you really have been sick!

Our poor narrator concludes:

Alas, no matter what I do, my friends will never let me brag; in vain I hoped my siege of ‘flu would give a chance to chew the rag.

Simple humour by today’s standards, but interesting to see the lighthearted – but gently moralising – take on what was a terrible scourge at the time. Some describe Mason as a poet-philosopher.

Will we be writing about COVID-19 in similar tones over the next decade?

53 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Spanish flu

  1. I don’t ‘get’ the cynosure, ST: I understand the word to mean .. oh, centre of attention ? main attraction ? – something like that. Help, she said pathetically.

  2. *snap!* I have been thinking more and more about how people felt during the Spanish Flu, and here you are, with a Monday Musings.
    One of the Ex’s rellos remembers seeing as a child an uncle who died of it at home. She said he was ‘black’ which I assume meant he was suffering from gangrene. It was obviously a ghastly experience which never left her, and you do wonder about the wisdom of bringing a child along to ‘say goodbye’. I have found myself wondering about how children today cope with being confronted by masked and gowned medicos.
    I think the best expression of the widespread fear is in Philip Roth’s Nemesis, a novella about the polio epidemic in the US.

    • Thanks Lisa. Good point about young children. I guess it will partly depend on how the situation is handled, but there will be fearful or anxious children won’t there? I haven’t read Nemesis – sounds well worth reading.

      BTW I found an article about the Spanish flu breaking out on a Norwegian steamer with 700 Chinese laborers, but it was 1922, so after the main time-frame, and more of a straight news report. When the ship reached Nauru it was in quarantine off-shore for 2 weeks.

      • Might that not be because the flu made its way around the world over a long time frame? We are all hopeful of a vaccine so that the world can get back to normal, but if it proves elusive, then might it not over time have travelled to remote places that escaped it first time round?

        • Oh yes, sorry Lisa, I wasn’t expressing surprise. Just saying it was a story about the flu some time after the critical period. Not even sure why I added that info really! My understanding is that now we have coronavirus, it is with us for a long time but hopefully vaccination will mean that we’ll have it under control in the future?

  3. In the 17th and 18th centuries, cynosure was used figuratively for anything or anyone that, like the North Star, was the focus of attention or observation.

    • Thanks Jeanne, that’s what I’d read, but I wonder why one person of them all, in this article/story, is “the cynosure”. I guess what I’m saying is that I wonder what the point is of identifying that person as the cynosure.

  4. The Spanish Flu was indeed the closest event to what we are dealing with now.

    These writings are fascinating. It is always enlightening to look at the ways that people in the past viewed these tragedies.

    I will soon be starting a history book on the Spanish Flu.

  5. Hi Sue, I am sure there will be a glut of COVID-19 stories around in the future – and enlarged. It seems lately that every book I have read mentions the Spanish Flu or the plague! I think cynosure is your ‘guide’. Cynosure is from Latin meaning North Star and was used by navigators to guide them.

    • Ah, that makes a little more sense Meg, “guide”. I’ll have to read the story more closely with that sense in mind.

      BTW, what an interesting coincidence. I have noticed some books coming out with contents like this – through the AWW – but I haven’t read them myself.

      • Those are some lame jokes WG. Interestingly, I can’t think of an example of Spanish Flu crossing over into Australian Lit. of the time though I suppose it did. And I don’t remember if reconstructions like 1915 or Fly Away Peter mention it either.

        • No I don’t recollect either Bill.

          As for the lame jokes, that seemed to be par for the times didn’t it. They used fancier words but lamer jokes back then!!

        • LOL. Didn’t read it, just got hold of an eBook version and did a search for “Spanish”, which I couldn’t find. I do intend to read it, but my TBR list is going silly at the moment. Too many people producing lists of what to read during social isolation!

        • I’ve read it, tweaked my list, as you said it was a novella. I’m a bit stunned. My grandfather fought on the Western Front, and I’d never thought about his experiences, but about three-quarters of the way through the book, I started to wonder about how he went. Alas, I never met him, he died when my father was 9. The book was beautifully written, though I found it very sad. Maybe that’s a sign of the times. But certainly no Spanish flu, it ends before this hit Australia

        • I’m really glad you liked it Neil. I read it many many years ago so don’t remember the fine details but the three characters and their relationships, the war, the class issues. Such a powerful book – but I wouldn’t have expected it to mention the flu. Would you recommend it to your reading group? Or not up their alley?

          A shame you never met your grandfather. I knew all my grandparents, and I treasure that.

        • Would I select it for reading group? That’s a good question. At the moment, probably not. I’m thinking of “Too much lip”. Also thinking about being really cheeky, and suggesting “That Glimpse of Truth 100 of the Finest Short Stories Ever Written”, compiled by David Miller. Would ask them to read at least ten, selecting what appeals to them. At 946 pages, probably too much to ask folk to read every one! But my choice doesn’t come up till August, so there’s plenty of time for something else we to turn up. (I must admit that the idea of having short stories is quite attractive, given to say they are valid literature,)

        • Too much lip is my group’s April read. I’m greatly looking forward to seeing how it goes.

          Have you done short stories before? We have a few times. They generate different discussions because even if people do read them all, which is not guaranteed when you do such a collection, the discussion naturally focuses on the stories people liked the most. And that’s OK I think. Of course there are short story collections of stories by the same writer, and anthologies (which sounds like what you are considering.) We’ve done both types, but I don’t think we’ve ever done one that’s nearly 1000 pages!!

        • We’ve never done short stories, which is part of the attraction! Yes, it is an anthology. I wouldn’t expect people to read all of them, and even if they did, they’d probably struggle to remember them all for discussion. Far better to ask them to read perhaps 10%, and then talk about their one of two top picks.

          I’ll be interested to hear how your book club goes on Too Much Lip – I get the posting from Minerva as an email, and always find it an interesting read, especially when you post on the book was well!

        • Yes, that’s usually the way it falls out with short story collections and anthologies anyhow, whether you set that up formally or not! But it’s good to do short stories occasionally I think.

          You haven’t considered doing a blog for your group? I’d like more people to write for ours. It would be nice if more than just two of us did it, but it is a good record.

        • I’ve thought about doing a blog, both for the book group and for myself. But then I’ve looked at the sophistication you and Mr Gums have achieved, and despair of getting anything like it, so I haven’t investigated further. We have a record of what we’ve done, one of our members is the self-appointed minute secretary, but the minutes are pretty light on in terms of the actual discussion of the book.

        • With WordPress it’s not hard Neil. Minerva is blogger, the first one I created when I didn’t know better. You can set it to be private and have a play.

  6. Thanks for this, Sue. The flu–crossword analogy has extra resonance for me because myy own addiction to the Guardian cryptic crossword has intensified during this time of social isolation

  7. For Kaggsy and Simon’s #1920s Club, I’ve just read a short story called The Black Grippe by British short story writer Edgar Wallace…It references the Spanish Flu but the ‘grippe’ is something different. What’s interesting is the depiction of political distrust of experts, which seemed sadly familiar today. (My review will be up next Monday).
    What was interesting to me was when I did some research about it, I learned the reason why it was called the Spanish Flu. It emerged in 1918, during WW1 and to keep up morale, reports about it were censored. But Spain was neutral in WW1 so there were reports about it which made it look as if Spain was especially impacted and was the source of the infection. Back then, epidemiology was more rudimentary so no one actually really knows where it came from but the name stuck.
    It’s horrifying to think that suppressing the information about it must have led to even greater mortality…

    • Thanks Lisa … interesting. I had heard that it probably didn’t originate in Spain, but hadn’t heard that reason for the name. As for the rest, my youthful idealism has been overtaken in recent years by the recognition that history repeats itself! I like to think though that we don’t go round fully in circles but that we go in spirals progressing a little each time re repeat!

      • I have a very strong aversion to the notion that history repeats itself, or even that it goes in spirals. If the brush is broad enough, yes it does go in circles. But a brush this broad is not very helpful, and could be dangerously misleading. Certainly we had Spanish flu a century ago, and quarantine or isolation was a useful approach to combating it. But so much is different. We can learn lessons from the past, but we need to interpret them in the current context. To me, to say that history repeats itself is a little like saying that every continent has rivers. It’s true, but not very helpful.

        • Fair enough Neil, but I think to a large degree we don’t learn enough lessons from history. Otherwise, so many issues would have made far more progress than they have. Perhaps the better description is Two Steps Forward One Step Back.

          I’d like to think we interpret the past in the current context but human nature, which doesn’t seem to change a lot, is the limiting issue it seems to me.

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