Lesley Kelly has worked in the public and voluntary sectors for the past 20 years, dabbling in poetry and stand-up comedy along the way. She has won a number of writing competitions, including The Scotsman's Short Story award in 2008. Here, she explains how she put emergency planners at the heart of her latest novel.
I’m a huge fan of apocalyptic tales. If there’s a zombie Armageddon on the horizon, a weaponised virus waiting to be set loose, or a natural disaster about to put paid to mankind, count me in.
However, just as I’m settling down with the popcorn, there’s always a little voice that pipes up in the back of my head saying nope, this wouldn’t happen. A little nagging tone that says sorry, Mr Spielberg, but we plan for this kind of thing. You know what, Mr Coppola? We got this.
In my day job, I work for an umbrella body for local not-for-profit organisations. We spend a lot of time representing the sector on a range of community planning forums, not least the ones preparing for disaster. I know how much time is spent planning for snow, hurricanes, pandemics, heatwaves and zombie apocalypses
(well, OK, maybe not the last one).
When I came to write my Edinburgh-based Health of Strangers series about a killer flu epidemic, I wanted it to be realistic. I started with a real virus – no rage-infected monkeys for me. My influenza strain was based on Spanish Flu, which killed approximately five per cent of the world’s population in the immediate aftermath of World War One.
My alternative world is not one where the Earth’s population has been reduced to a hardy band of survivors. It is one where life is carrying on, albeit with the need to manage a major public health incident. Spanish Flu occurred when the world was already on a war footing – but how would our much softer society respond to a threat of this kind today?
Would the public panic? Stop sending their children to school and stop turning up for work? Would we all suddenly find religion? What quacks and charlatans would spring up to sell ‘cures’ to a desperate populous? And how would the government respond?
I can answer that last question in one word – bureaucracy. In The Health of Strangers, the government has instituted monthly health checks, and established Health Enforcement Teams (HETs) to track down individuals who fail to turn up. Half the staff are seconded from the Police, and the others from Health Promotion, leading to a clash of organisational cultures as they work together to form a new strand of emergency disaster management.
The North Edinburgh HET, by dint of its proximity to the Scottish Parliament, picks up all the cases with a political slant. To date, our heroes have taken on religious cults, drug dealers, corrupt MSPs, dodgy civil servants, and risked their lives to get each and every health defaulter into their monthly check up. That’s even before they have to deal with office politics and the daily quest to stop mission drift.
When the inevitable happens, and we do have to face another viral pandemic, there will be crime. There will be swindlers and con artists. There will be politicians making capital out of suffering, and knee-jerk policies written on the back of envelopes. But in the background, keeping society afloat, will be the doughty band of resilience professionals.
Guys – you got this.
Photo shows Lesley Kelly taken by @chrisdonia
Lesley Kelly’s first novel, A Fine House in Trinity, was published in 2016, and was longlisted for the William McIlvanney Prize. Her Health of Strangers series is published by Sandstone Press. You can find out more
about the Health of Strangers series here or on Twitter @lkauthor