A plague on all our houses

There is a rat for every person in the British Isles. Our way of life has invited them in
October 19, 2003

It took Tina Clark a while to believe she had rats. When she first found packets of biscuits torn open in the kitchen cupboard, she assumed her ten-year-old daughter, Amie, had been snacking. But the container of cat food under the sink was also ripped open. She got a lid for it, but it was attacked again; there were teethmarks on the lid.

She threw away the food in the cupboards, and found two big holes in the chipboard at the back. There was another hole a foot wide, falling away into darkness, behind a panel in the corridor outside. All the holes had black greasy marks on their edges. Her cats spent hours by the panel in the corridor, waiting.

Then the sounds began. They were tentative noises which might have been many other things. You could choose to think they were floorboards creaking, heaters clicking off, or twigs tapping at a window. But Tina had encountered rats before, and she was brave enough to recognise the scuttering of claws.

The rat population of Britain is growing very fast. The number of brown rats-Rattus norvegicus, which came to this country in the 18th century aboard timber ships from Scandinavia-has grown 53 per cent in five years. There are over 60m of them-at least one for every person in the British Isles. Rattus rattus, the plague-carrying black rat that died out centuries ago in this country, is back too. It is found in ports, sneaking ashore with cargoes from newly capitalist eastern Europe.

The brown rat prefers to live underground, feeding at dawn and dusk and shunning danger. But there are now so many of them that they come out in daylight.

Rats can climb walls with their long claws. They can push their heads constructed of overlapping plates into cracks in your skirting board no wider than a pen, and wriggle their bodies along behind like a sausage. And they can swim up into houses from the sewers, through the S-bend in lavatories.

Rats feed on waste, so they flock to places in decay (though they are no respecters of human status: a few years ago a rat stopped parliament when it was seen crossing the floor of the chamber of the Commons, and in 2001 they infested the kitchens of Buckingham Palace). And they are known collectively as a mischief for good reason. Rats' teeth never stop growing; they have to keep gnawing to wear them back down. They like chomping on wood and metal, and love electric cables, which are slim enough to fit in their mouths. Rats chewed through cables at a car factory in Germany, sending cars rolling off the production line at night. Railtrack has blamed cable- eating rats for delayed trains. Insurance companies think rats are a significant cause of house fires. When rats are found in supermarkets, it is almost always after eating the freezer cables and frying themselves.

Rats spread disease. They are the only animals that SAS soldiers in the field are banned from eating for health reasons. Rat droppings bring salmonella. The rat's weak bladder makes it drip urine wherever it goes, and the urine gives humans Weil's disease, whose first, apparently innocuous, cold-like symptoms move fatally to the kidneys and liver. 200 people contract Weil's disease in Britain each year.

Black rats carried fleas infected with the bacterium Yersinia pestis into London in 1665. The fleas bit humans and, in a summer heatwave, people sickened and died, groins and armpits stretched taut with sacs of pus. Sufferers and their families were boarded up in their homes for 40 days, with red crosses painted on their doors. Before winter set in, ending the epidemic, the parishes of London had recorded 40,000 deaths.

Seventeenth-century Londoners didn't know rats were to blame. There is only one reference to them in Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, and no mention at all in Samuel Pepys's diary. But we know. Our ancient dislike of rats has been magnified by the fear of premature death we now associate with them.

We don't believe in devils any more. But the way we think about rats comes close: they are darkness in a four-legged form; primitive creatures trying to squeeze through the crannies of civilisation to get us.

Tina clark is 32 and works as a driver for a personal hygiene company. She is a single mother on one of the many daunting housing estates built on bomb craters in the deprived east end district of Poplar. Although so small and delicate that she wears size three shoes, she is also feisty and fast-talking, with a perky lift to her dark ponytail.

Tina worked out that the holes in her flat must connect with the disused garages under her row of heavily barred housing units. The garages had been closed off by concrete, so she couldn't get inside to see if there were rats there. She could only go by what the neighbours said. "A lady on the first floor told me she'd watched an elderly person throw dinners out in the garden over the garages, and seen rats eating them. She saw one running along the back fence."

Tina tried to get her flat sealed off from the invaders. But staff at the estate management office, a Portakabin on a sad strip of lawn behind her home, gave her short shrift. They knew there was a rat infestation in the garages, but said they were already doing what they could: pest control baited the garages monthly. The council in Tower Hamlets, overwhelmed with the problems of one of the poorest areas in London, didn't have much time for one tenant. She wanted the holes linking her flat to the garages filled in; no one could make the effort. They sent a man from environmental health, who put down blue-green blocks of poison, but they didn't work. Tower Hamlets rats either know not to eat bait, or are immune to the poison.

"They couldn't catch anything," Tina remembers, curled up on the sofa, as her shy, round-faced daughter comes out of the kitchen with tea for us. "I could hear the rats and smell them, but I couldn't see them. And the council didn't want to know."

"Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't," said the environmental health man, as he gave Tina rat traps: fierce metal bars with springs on eight-inch wooden blocks, the old-fashioned kind you see in comics, designed to break a rat's neck, and so powerful they can break your finger too. She set them herself, baited with chocolate spread, and nudged them cautiously into place at the back of her cupboards.

It is unusual to be as persistent and practical as Tina in fighting back against rats. The commonest response is to be immobilised by fear.

I met another rat victim in the east end: a pregnant white woman called Anne-Marie who lived in a very clean flat in a high security, middle-class compound in Whitechapel. She had complained for months to Tower Hamlets council about the rats in her courtyard. To her, the rats represented the filth and poverty of the market outside. "The market's all Bengali now," she said. "They don't leave a thoroughfare on the pavement. People from the shops set up on the street, and the street's always littered with cabbage and coriander. The sweepers can't get rid of the market rubbish, and without that you can't get rid of the rats."

Anne-Marie had all but given up. She only went to the dustbins in daylight. She wanted to sell her flat and get away, but she was scared that the rats had gnawed away at her property's value.

I understood her passivity. I remember seeing a rat in a street market in Moscow, at a hungry time when people made half-hearted jokes about pasties and sausage being made of rat meat. This rat was slinking away under a fence by the icy back stairs. It seemed at least a foot long, and its fat, naked, rope-like tail was twice as long again. It gave me a long, arrogant stare. Two women behind me gasped. We paused and waited fearfully for it to skitter off over the black ice. It looked mean enough to go for us if provoked.

Another time, at night, I saw rats on a black and white marble floor by a rusty Russian lift. These rats were just a slither, squeaking underfoot, with a hint of delicate, verminous paws in moonlight.

My heart was hot and heavy as I slipped upstairs to safety. My neighbour, a bit of a philosopher, was leaning over the staircase, smoking.

"Rats don't really exist," he said languidly after I'd stammered out my story. "You think you've seen them, but really you've glimpsed the darkness in your soul."

Thinking about this, I realised the most frightening rats in literature are, indeed, metaphors for human nastiness. The burghers of Hamelin, who were too greedy to pay the piper for charming the rats out of town, were punished when he lured their children away forever too. Sigmund Freud had a patient who was obsessed about his family being tortured by having rats gnaw through their anuses. Freud understood that the young man had never acknowledged conflicting feelings about his dead father, or a sexual fascination with his stepmother. His murderous rats were really the shame and rage inside himself.

So were the rats that terrified Winston Smith in 1984. Smith had a recurring nightmare in which "he was standing in front of a wall of darkness, and on the other side of it there was something unendurable, something too dreadful to be faced... He always woke up without discovering what it was."

In the climactic scene of the book, he found out. Under interrogation in the ministry of truth, Winston was taken to Room 101 to meet his worst nightmare. He was strapped into a contraption which would let hungry rats loose on his face. "For an instant he was insane, a screaming animal... There was one and only way to save himself. He must interpose another human being, the body of another human being, between himself and the rats." So Winston betrayed his lover, Julia, begging for her to be gnawed to pieces instead, and was morally destroyed.

I visited Rentokil, the pest control experts, to find out why there are so many rats in Britain today. Martin Pearce, a ratcatcher turned manager, learned his trade examining the urine stalactites rats leave on pipes, digging out nests of shredded newspapers from under fridges, taking away the blind pink babies inside for execution, and laying the blue pills which make rats bleed to death. But he told me something that my philosopher neighbour would have understood: the rat problem is a people problem. The reason British towns are being overrun by rats is because of the way the people in those towns live.

The milder winters brought by industrial pollution mean that rats now survive until spring. The shrubberies around shopping centres, packed with food waste in flimsy black bags, are rat havens. Dense 21st-century populations rely on 19th-century sewage systems which we are too stingy to modernise. Water and rail companies have stopped routinely dropping poison along sewers and railway lines, the great breeding grounds for urban rodents. Now bait is only laid if an infestation has already been reported.

Urban life is controlled by so many agencies that they can always blame someone else for your rats. Councils blame water boards, rail companies and shops, who in turn blame councils. Pest control is random, symbolic and cheap. No wonder rats feel safe eyeballing you at two o'clock in the afternoon as you put your shopping in the car. Rats thrive on social as much as urban decay. As each act of human greed and irresponsibility tears another hole in our social fabric, it creates a new space for rats to nest and breed.

But neither the rats nor the bureaucrats in Tower Hamlets had reckoned on Tina's determination. The darkness in her soul was her fear that something might harm her daughter. So she stood her ground, pestered the council, harassed the caretakers, baited and rebaited her traps.

"I was terrified, don't get me wrong, but as a mum you have to take control," she says. We are in her living room with its battered walls, large television and single sofa. Behind us is a stretch of concrete with a goldfish pond and a couple of plants-something between a balcony and a garden. Amie, in her school clothes, is padding quietly in and out, but keeps coming back to listen to this favourite war story.

"Everyone was saying, 'move out, go to a hotel, get the council to deal with them,'" Tina says. "But there's my little girl. If anything happened to her, I don't know what I'd do. So we stayed, and sorted it out."

It was 11.30 on a Saturday morning when they heard the first trap go. ("Clap!" Tina cries, imitating the snap of the spring; "jung jung jung," Amie says, finishing the sound.) The second spring went off at 1pm, the third half an hour later. They know these times by heart, but Tina sends Amie to fetch the notebook-their trophy-where she jotted down the time of each catch, so I can see her record for myself.

Three more rats were caught on Sunday. Most were dead by the time Tina and Amie checked the traps. One was still alive, and Tina had to wallop it on the head with a hammer. Another was so big ("the size of my foot, nose to bum, not counting the tail") they thought it might be pregnant. "When you catch them they look sweet," Tina says with regret, "but it's the germs they carry. You can't live with them."

After making sure each rat was dead, Tina put on rubber gloves and tipped the corpse into a black bin-liner. She placed the bags outside by the goldfish pond. Before the end of the weekend, she also rang Louise, a reporter for the local paper she had talked to before to complain about the council. On Sunday night, she put the rat bodies into a single black bag, ready for action.

On Monday, she called the council and told them she was coming. She shouldered the bagful of rats and went down the stairs with Amie and a photographer provided by Louise. The little procession made its way to the Portakabin and the estate managers.

"There was no one behind the counter. I had to ring twice to get anyone out," she says. Before the council workers stirred, Tina got out the black bag. She laid out the rats-smelling ripely after a weekend on her patio-in a neat line on the counter. When the staff emerged, it was to find six dead rats lit by the flash of a press camera.

"They were shouting, 'eurgh, get them away from here, they stink!'" Tina says. "I said: 'You've had that smell in here for three seconds, but how long have I had to live with that in my house?'"

It was human negligence, as much as rats, that Tina ended up fighting. And she won hands down. Workmen came to concrete over the holes in her flat that very day. Since then, more men from the council have cleaned her kitchen units. She's getting new carpets, and has even put in a claim for the contaminated food and saucepans she had to throw away.

She is still living in the mess of her encounter with rats: roughly concreted-in holes and torn-up carpets. But Tina has a spring in her step these days, the confidence of a heroine who has vanquished the darkness. She has already lodged complaints that the rat-proofing work so far hasn't been up to scratch. And she isn't taking any nonsense from neighbours who think she's been making too much fuss.

"One lady on this estate has been moaning at me," she says. "She's got pigeons. They're outside her door, shitting on the floor under the roof from morning to night, and there's nothing she can do but put up and shut up. She thinks that's what I should have done."

"But her pigeons are outside, and the rats were living inside with me. And that's the difference."