I am Mycobacterium tuberculosis, a hardy bacillus that has been on this planet so long now, that I'm actually older than the human species itself. I mean I could bore you and tell you I've seen it all, about way back in history when the green lands of Africa were still joined to Antarctica and was called Gondwanaland, but I'll not! Just suffice to say that the first recorded European consumer lived in the beautiful Altstadt of Heidelberg about seven thousand years ago. That was back in 5,000 BC, long before Bertie and the Nice Treaty and his recently retrieved skeletal remains shows he was a true believer in the consumer cause. Around the same time I was visiting ancient Egypt, fiddling with the dear old mummy's remains, twisting a spine here and there, sitting out on the warm hotel terrace above the Nile, hanging around waiting on the pyramid of Cheops to be built. And as the saffron sun set over the city of Cairo for the thousandth time, I legged it to India and destroyed the intricate caste system for a few thousand years. Then came the Greeks and Romans, good coughers one and all, except may I say that quack Hippocrates was a bit suspect, a sort of Wagnerian alter ego. I mean he actually blamed the Scandinavians for spreading the good cough about. Well yes, I am well known to turn even my best friends alabaster white but to extrapolate that into some sort of hereditary tension, well it's just a liberty, why St.. Bernadette herself would turn in her grave. And I know, because I was there as she gasped her dying words 'Open my chest and let me breath!'
But seasons came and went and in 1784, I parted the company with Samuel Johnson who was something more profound as he coughed his last words, 'It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time '. And then in October 1820, short of some intellectual conversation, I went to Rome with John Keats for a holiday. After the rumor back in England that he wanted to leave me at home, we shared a house at the foot of the Spanish steps until we parted the company on February 23rd 1821 as he died in the arms of his friend Joseph Severn. But at this stage, I had got a taste for the Mediterranean vitae in the company of artisans, so in 1838, I left again for my winter holidays to Majorca. This time it was with Frederic Chopin, who was anything but discrete and he went around the island coughing so much that the locals got suspicious and followed him to the old Carthusain monastery of Valdemosa. Few know, it was here that Chopin produced some of his best nocturnes, including the poetically colorful, '24 Preludes op. 28 '. But not happy with doing that, he bribed his way out of the monastery and left on a passenger ship to Spain, where he haemoptysised upon his fellow passengers. This young Romanticist who had written Polish mazurkas about chasing peasant girls and hunting parts, was immediately put ashore and had to take a pig transporter onwards. The gentile composer of youthful rondos, polonaises and concertos, the man who had heralded the coming harms of Wagner, reduced to travel with pigs, just because he kept my company. And when the poor man ever arrived Paris, fresh with the latest Paco Porcine, it's little wonder his final words were, 'The earth is suffocating, swear to make them cut me open, so I will not be buried alive'.
Anyways, I'll tell you a story about the windswept Yorkshire moors, for it was there lived the Bronte sisters. And as the winds blew and the gales hind, the family closed their doors to the outside world and just delicately overcame over each other. Then as Maria, Elizabeth and Patrick died in turn, they decided they might as well keep their silence. When Anne finally died her parting sentence was meant to strengthen her one surviving sibling 'Take courage, Charlotte, take courage!'
Charlotte, the most prolific writer of the family, got married before she died and her death certificate was recorded as 'phthisis' the Greek word for the consumption. In fact Hippocrates used the term, but as he is in the doghouse for giving the Swedes a bad name, I will not extrapolate. Then in 1882, Robert Koch, a country doctor from the Rhineland, tried to convince everyone that the wriggling red microbes that he observed under his microscope were the cause of consumption and that I was readily identifiable with a crimson stain. His giggling collections put his theories of socialist bugs to rest and one year later, Sir Walter Scott fell for my charms. Four years later, Doc Holliday went to Glenwood Springs to see if the sulphur vapours would improve his cough, but he was too far gone and on November 8, 1887, he asked for a glass of whiskey. Then he said, "This is funny", and died. He always believed that his end would come from lead poisoning, at the end of a rope, but lost his biggest bet when he died of tuberculosis.
As the decade passed, I befriended Robert Louis Stevenson, but we always went our separate ways near Apia, in the Solomon Isles in early December 1894. At least you can say I got everyone to go overseas on holiday no matter how bad the felt
Well the new century came and I watched the burial of Cecil John Rhodes. By 1902, he had taken his last and his final train journey through Africa to the Matopo Hills was a triumphal affair. Meanwhile, Anton Chekov started coughing up blood and died a few years later. As the Great War broke out, DH Lawrence escaped conscription because of his chest. In 1924, Prague born writer, Franz Kafka, lay haemorrhaging from his lungs in a downtown Vienna hospital. He begged for the doctors to give him a lethal dose of morphine, and in true Wildean fashion screamed to them, 'Kill me, or else you are a murderer'. In that same year, over 200, 000 Americans died of the disease, which was more than the total for heart disease and cancer combined. In 1930, an impoverished DH Lawrence coughed his last in Vence, France and as the years passed, the Second World War was cooked under a different sunset.
During these years I found many friends in Europe and in1943 it was estimated that I had befriended 100,000 people in the Warsaw ghettos. A similar number were infected in Americans and by the Christmas of that year about half that number had paid the ultimate price. But the tide of life, brought new advances and things were slowly beginning to turn against me. November 1944, saw the introduction of streptomycin and an eventual decrease in the number of people that I bestowed friendship on. In 1990, I was with my old friend Nelson Mandela as he was released from Robben Island. I still have a lot of other friends around the world, but I am more selective these days and tend to only befriend the poor or immigrants. Presently about eight million people cough themselves daily into another sunset, of which about three million will not see the coming fall.