Soft lights, iron lungs

A Summer Plague: Polio and its survivors Tony Gould Yale £19.95
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It's fading fast for most of us now, the memory of where we were when Kennedy was assassinated, but we remember to the last empty-echoing tile the swimming baths where we first heard, or at least came to fear, the word "polio". Were we ordered out of the pool at the first rumour of the latest epidemic - "Quick! Quick! move, polio!" - or were the baths simply barred to us the next time we piled out of the school bus with our itchy trunks folded inside our towels? Either way, the closure ensured that I would never again visit baths, or ever feel safe in water anywhere. To this day, 40 years on, I still connect the smells and sounds of such places with the crippling disease; still see the viruses snaking through the water, lurking in the pipes, rejoicing in the unhealthy crush of flesh, like the thousand thousand slimy things in Coleridge's rotting sea.

But perhaps those associations are merely the indulgence of those of us who could continue to fear the word because we escaped the disease. Certainly, the very title of Tony Gould's extraordinarily gripping social history of polio, with its sinisterly beautiful cover illustration of a be-crutched shadow darkening the unheeding, light-filled lake of idealised boyhood, evokes another sort of poetry. A Summer Plague - if not quite an idyll, then an interlude, a brief interruption of normality, with compensations and even pleasures of its own.

"We did generate a good feeling," recalls one of the book's English "polios" of her residential home at Silverwood in Cobham. "I used to have a nice time, doing the crossword with a friend and occasionally being taken out. . . The people who were not so disabled could do things like getting hot drinks for the others. . . It was marvellous because they would get you a book, or move this, or get that. . ." And Warm Springs, Roosevelt's pet hydrotherapy centre in Georgia, draws out rapturous memories from those who recovered, or endeavoured to recover, there. "Those warm nights out of the American South. Voices on the soft wind. Soft lights shining. . . Laughter, joking." It is not just recuperation, or companionableness in disability; the most dreaded paraphernalia of survival, too, become summery in retrospect. "I still love the sounds of the bellows of an iron lung and the pulsation of a portable respirator. . ."

But it would be to give an entirely false impression of A Summer Plague to imply that it is an indulgent study of the languid morbidities of illness. We are not in sick-soul territory, here. For my money, it's an advantage, when it comes to the history of the polio virus itself, that Tony Gould's background is literary rather than scientific. Praise be to the Blind Watchmaker that this is not one of those whimsical tales of smart genes and plotting parasites by which the best of us have been persuaded there is such a form as the scientifico-poet. It's a further advantage that the literary tradition to which Tony Gould owes allegiance is not Colin Wilson's collection of 20th- century sickies. Conrad's name is invoked in the most personal section of the book, but his presence, the example of his intelligence, is felt throughout.

The story of the rivalry of Salk and Sabin - the war between the vaccinators - is told with what, before the Booker Prize, we used to call novelist's skills. We see them. We hear them. We become so engaged in their "undying enmity'', the aura of success passing back and forth between them, the Cold War itself becoming the playground for their genius and their vanity, that we feel bereft when ordinary terrestrial death claims Sabin, and Picasso's sometime mistress, Franoise Gilot, claims Salk. The latter, by the by, having withdrawn from the field into a West Coast institution of his own, "a mausoleum in which he was entombed alive'', was caught "between science and celebrity'' - sans respect, sans victory, sans everything, except Picasso's sometime mistress.

Back with those born too early to benefit from either Salk's or Sabin's vaccine, examples of bravery and devotion multiply, achievement plucked from the cruellest bad luck and misadventure, lit by the recurring phenomenon of pride and even arrogance in the affliction. A better class of illness, polio. "Polio lesions, like war wounds," Tony Gould observes, "may be graded according to their severity, creating a kind of hierarchy." There's no end to the ingenuity of man, when it comes to pegging out gradations of status.

And no end to its ingenuity when it comes to giving and sustaining life. Disapproved of by her parents for "living in sin'', a woman finds that it is possible, even without the use of her arms, to nurse her baby. "I didn't even stand there and think, 'How shall I get hold of you?' I just bent down and pick-ed her up in my teeth and held on to the front of her clothes and carried her like that."

No judgement is passed on the parents and the gross irrelevance of their concern with "sin". It hangs there quietly in the narrative until the woman's reversion to animal tenderness and necessity says all there is to say about the ultimate redundancy of morality. In this way A Summer Plague comes to be a book whose subject is not just the victims of a motiveless malignancy, but humanity itself. It goes one better than compassion. It reconciles us. To chance. And to one another.