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Catharine Arnold has written over ten books covering the darker side of social history

Sophie Gargett talks to writer, councillor and social historian Catharine Arnold about pandemics, the childhood that shaped her writing, and how the world may change after lockdown. 

When Nottingham writer Catharine Arnold began writing a book about the 1918 Spanish Flu, the thought of living through such a time herself was merely a morbid daydream. “I was reading personal accounts of people living through it and thinking, ‘Could that happen here, could I be sitting in this room, looking out on the sleepy suburban street that seems so perfect, knowing that just as in 1918 the same horrible things are actually happening around the corner?’”

Three years later, reality has certainly caught up. In recent weeks Catharine has quickly become a natural go-to voice on pandemic history, with radio interviews and online appearances filling her days. “I’ve become sort of a content provider, because people want answers. It’s quite odd.”

Not adverse to exploring the darker side of human existence, over the past twenty years she has released a steady canon of social history books, with titles including City of Sin: London and its Vices (2010), Necropolis: London and its Dead (2006), and Bedlam: London and its Mad (2008). Pandemic 1918 (2018) which covers the influenza pandemic that followed the first world war and killed around 3% of the world’s population, was a natural next choice of topic.

“I was one of the slightly odder kids living in the strange house near the cemetery.“

You might expect such a writer to be bound in melancholy, but Catharine appears amiable, matter of fact and charmingly knowledgeable. She attributes her curious subject matter to her early years: “I had a Stephen King type childhood,” she explains. “I was one of the slightly odder kids living in the strange house near the cemetery.“

Growing up nearby Nottingham’s ornate and weathered Church Rock Cemetery, Catharine paints a rich image of her adolescence, surrounded by mahogany furniture, Chinese screens, old paintings, silver and china. “The flat was very dark and surrounded by tall trees. My parents did what most young people did back then and furnished their house from the flea market. It was almost like a stage set. All the pieces seem to have their own individual little spirit and this created a very Victorian atmosphere. It was spooky.

“So later on when I became interested in things like Victorian poets, Pre-Raphaelites, that whole decadent Victorian scene and the darker, more sinister elements of Victoriana, it was really just a continuation of when me and my friends used to settle down watching horror films on a Friday night, on a big old Chesterfield with the cats.”

Catharine began writing early on. At age twelve she sent her first novel to publishers. A fantasy about a magical land, it was not picked up but Catharine received positive feedback that would encourage her to hone her craft further. She studied a degree in English Literature at Cambridge University where she became familiar with historical research, and later moved to London. “I knew that if I didn’t I would miss it for the rest of my life.”

Despite returning to Nottingham four years later, London would continue to inspire her work, and over the next twenty years she explored the multi-faceted underbelly of the capital in a series of books covering crime and punishment, the sex industry and Shakespeare’s Globe. “It seems to me kind of a home from home. My last agent actually said, ‘Catharine – you are a Victorian really.’ At first I thought, ‘Oh god, does that mean he thinks I’m this proper and uptight person?’ But what he actually meant was that I can relate to that period, the things that interested them and their preoccupations.”

“If you’re in a good place under lockdown then obviously creativity is good when coping with it psychologically.”

Researching the 1918 pandemic was not enough to prepare her for what we are now facing, with the extent of the crisis coming as a surprise. “I thought it wouldn’t be so bad, and indeed it hasn’t been because we’re talking about a hundred million lives lost during the Spanish Flu … But it actually has been worse because we haven’t had the resources we need to cope with it. In the UK the Home Office had a contingency plan to deal with a flu pandemic, which was top of the list even above domestic terrorism. But it was hard to execute anything like that because of the cuts to the NHS, which have been nodded through by the Tory government over a series of years.”

Book cover of Pandemic 1918 by Catharine Arnold
Pandemic 1918 covers the deadly Spanish Flu that took roughly 100 million lives

On a personal level, Catharine seems to be feeling the same lockdown malaise as most, and she is careful to point out that regular solitude undertaken by writers is much different to the current situation. “Voluntary isolation is worthwhile when you know it’s going to end. If you’re in a good place under lockdown and you can be creative, then obviously creativity is good when coping with it psychologically. But I still have to do all the things you’d usually have to do while working and living at home. And yet I can’t go to the pub, or the hairdresser, or go swimming.”

She is particularly wary of the popular suggestion that the pandemic will lead to a boom in creativity, and speaks frankly about the instabilities of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ following the Spanish Flu era: “When we think of the twenties, we think of the Bright Young Things, who were actually a very lucky minority – people with youth and good looks and money. But other people were suffering the economic implications of the war, the Depression and a huge recession. So it wasn’t fun for them. And it certainly wasn’t fun for anybody when nationalism started to emerge in many countries, with all its attendant side effects.”

Aside from delving into macabre history, Catharine’s work includes politics, having been a Nottingham City Councillor until 2019, university lecturing and psychology, in which she holds a postgraduate degree. Appointed Writer in Residence for the UK Council for Psychotherapy and Counselling during 2020, and with a personal memoir in the works, there’s certainly lots to keep her busy in the coming months.

When lockdown ends, Catharine’s main priority is the same as millions across the country: “Going to the pub.” she says. “You can drink at home, but it’s the atmosphere. Seeing the people you always see there, seeing my friends, and just enjoying being in a neutral space.”