2020 - stranger than fiction?
Updated: Mar 19, 2020
It's not often in the life of a thriller writer that real life events trump the horrors you have in store for your lead protagonist. But the present comes as close as I can remember.
When it first emerged late in 2019, the virus (Covid-19) was something typically remote; it was at a comfortable enough remove not to unduly concern those of us brought up on a diet of depraved US high school mass shootings and senseless suicide bomb attacks in the middle east. If not as regular, the emergence of a virus in the markets of Wuhan was at least predictable, if not ignorable.
I've seen first hand the filthy, unregulated markets in China, where animals (literally meat in fur packaging), stuffed into cages barely bigger than their frames, are stacked high and without a second thought by people too poor to care, with inadequate sanitation. These are hellish places, breeding grounds for everything from abhorrence and inhumanity to germs. They are the perfect petri dishes for organisms without a shred of compassion.
We watched the virus spread through China and into Korea. Then into Europe; as much a psychological as a physical breakout. Perhaps the clearest example of how unprepared the western world was to find itself center stage is Italy, where both the infection rate and death toll still far exceed that of any other country outside China, due in no small part to western complacency.
Now of course it's at home in the UK. We're having daily emergency broadcasts from the government. Boris Johnson stands there in front of two Union Jacks, flanked by high ranking officials, prescribing and proscribing as never before in peacetime. Perhaps most tellingly for Brits, all talk of Brexit has disappeared overnight after three years of incessant media coverage and public debate.
Having listened to my own parents' accounts of post-war rationing, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 80s depression, I always imagined that I too would one day sit down and regale (bore?) my own kids with stories of crises endured. It is telling though that I'd always imagined doing so when they were fully grown (as I was). I'm not equating this virus with the severity of any of those events; time has still to tell in that respect. But in all honesty I never envisaged having to explain to my six year old that his school was closing indefinitely in an attempt to stop the spread of germs that would otherwise lead to the deaths (by conservative estimates) of a quarter of a million Brits.
Neither did I ever envisage a situation where practically the entire planet went into lock-down: no sporting or musical events, no holidays, no social gatherings, no education. Where people were stock-piling supplies to the extent that supermarkets had to restrict sale quantities and opening hours. Where practically every employer and employee alike in the UK would suddenly be working from home, leaving offices and streets nation-wide empty. It sounds like a dystopian film plot. Yet it's the reality for those of us alive today.
So, yeah. It's not often in the life of a thriller writer that real life events trump the horrors you have in store for your lead protagonist. But no matter how many bullets I have fired at him, no matter how many times I have him stabbed, or how many times I have punches land squarely on his nose, I have to say that in March 2020 I'd still think twice about looking up from the page.