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Talking Location with author Julie Anderson – LONDON

5th July 2020

Julie Anderson #TalkingLocationWith… Julie Anderson, author of Plague, set in LONDON

When life and fiction collide….

In 2018 I began the research for my next novel, the book which became Plague (Claret Press, September 2020). I was about to undergo long awaited surgery and I planned to use the tedious weeks of recuperation to create plot and characters and, I hoped, to begin writing it. My idea was to write about power in its various forms – political, economic and sexual. Power was the filter through which many of the relationships, interactions and events would be seen.  Who has the power in a relationship being as pertinent a question as who is going to get the power of the top job, or how money brings power.  It was to be set in the historic centre of political power, at Westminster.

This is a world I knew well, as I was a senior civil servant in Whitehall and Westminster for many years. I’ve always been fascinated by history and there is so much there, a place which has been the epicentre of British and, for a long time, global, power. There are arcane practices in the Palace of Westminster, the Mother of Parliaments, which are still followed today, relating to specific historical events. These, as well as the way every day Parliamentary business is done, are little known or understood by the general public. I wanted to make this an integral part of the story.

Although the events of the book take place mainly in that small area around Whitehall and Westminster, wider London would feature too. I love living in London, its diversity and vibrancy and I wanted to show some of that. So my heroine lives in Clapham, crimes scenes are discovered near Oxford Street, in Mayfair and south of the river in Lambeth, but the novel ranges across different kinds of London, from a high rise council flat in Elephant and Castle, to gentrified Victoriana and a Georgian townhouse in Mayfair. The characters we meet include peers of the realm, City tycoons and a homeless man who lives on the streets. Sometimes London is airy and brilliant, sometimes claustrophobic and dark. It’s all London.

Fast forward eighteen months and the novel is in its final editing stage in the New Year. The publishers schedule launch for September 2020. There are discussions about launch events and literary festivals. Then COVID-19 happens.

Now my book, despite its title, isn’t about a pandemic. It’s certainly not about an outbreak of plague, the contagion described in Plague is the contagion of corruption and of power.  It does, however, contain a ‘plague panic’ of a more traditional kind, when everyone fears that the Black Death is returning to London.  The media stokes that fear, at the behest of those who seek to profit, in one way or another, from the panic. In the novel people react to something which they believe is taking place, whereas now people are reacting to events actually taking place. How they react is very similar and is disconcertingly close to what is happening right now.

So, in real life, we have people demonstrating along Whitehall wearing hazmat suits – my central character gets caught up in just such a demo and harassed (Chap.  42). Pharmacists are hiring bodyguards, the real news media tell us, because they are afraid of being attacked by members of the public when they can’t provide the medicines they seek – this also happens in Plague (Chap.  26). The media are complicit in the panic in Plague, unquestioningly reporting as the powerful instruct, often claiming opinion as fact and, as my central character says, ‘It’s dishonest and dangerous.’  (Chap. 34 ). I find myself agreeing with her when I sometimes watch the TV news or see news headlines which are obviously designed to manipulate their readers opinion.

This is all somewhat disconcerting, to say the least.  This pandemic is real and thousands of lives have been, and will be lost, in Britain alone. It is an enormous human tragedy. I merely wrote a murder mystery story set against the backdrop of a plague panic, yet the events I wrote about are now playing out on the news feeds. That’s what happens when life and fiction collide.

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