Man who saw virus come 15 years before it did

Updated: 26 April, 2020 08:51 IST | Aastha Atray Banan | Mumbai

Scottish author Peter May wrote his recent release, Lockdown, 15 years ago with London as the backdrop, and lived to watch it become a reality

Peter May
Peter May

It was 2005, and Scottish author Peter May had just finished researching the Spanish Flu, which lasted from January 1918 to December 1920, and left 500 million people infected. That's about a third of the world's population at the time. He had decided that his next book in his China series would be inspired by a pandemic. But when his publisher brought about an to the China series, he thought he'd write it as a standalone book, with London as the backdrop. But as fate would have it, publishers considered the crime thriller, which spoke of a grand city coming to a standstill because of a virus, unrealistic. And, the manuscript went straight into his bottom drawer.

Until now.

"Somebody told me [after the Coronavirus outbreak] on Twitter, why don't you use the virus as a setting for a new book? And I realised, well, I already have written one." That we are all facing the circumstances described in the book he called Lockdown, could come across as eerie, and May knows that. "During the Spanish Flu, large parts of London were under lockdown—dinners were banned, shops were shut, and armed guards roamed the streets. I set my story in London since I know the city inside out," he says in a telephonic interview from France.

Lockdown was finally out in early 2020 and its publishers riverrun, had said, "The current situation around the world is unprecedented and as people struggle to comprehend and process it, many are being drawn to books and films that reflect these concerns."

May's story follows investigator Jack MacNeil, who is sent to investigate a building site for a temporary hospital where a bag containing the rendered bones of a murdered child has been discovered. The virus has hit the city and his family. Who will get to him first—the killers or the virus?

May says he is tempted to compare the Coronavirus to the Spanish Flu, and wishes that we build immunity to it. But, he doesn't think it's going to be easy. "It's not a flu, it's a very different kind of devil, this virus. The optimist in me says that governments will be sensible about the lockdowns, and there will be gradual easing up, and that the vaccine will work. But the pessimistic me in feels that governments will hurry up because they are worried about the economy. And that the vaccine will take its time to come. We need to be very careful."

A woman walks down Regent Street in London on April 20. Pic/ Getty Images

He is hinting at the possibility of a second wave if we are not cautious. The Spanish Flu, which first came in the spring of 1918, abated, only to have a second run in the autumn, before it phased out in the summer of 1919. But not before it had killed multitudes.

Right now, May is busy enjoying the adulation with the book selling worldwide. That his prediction seems to have come true has fascinated readers and the press alike. "The response has been overwhelming, but sometimes, I wish it wasn't published, because that would mean the Coronavirus wouldn't be a reality," says May, who has decided to give his advance to charities helping health workers.

As he thinks about what to write next, since his book on the Arctic Circle stands postponed, he is also taking hope in the fact that Lockdown, which he thought would trouble most, is proving to do quite the opposite. "The one comment that's recurrent is that the book is oddly comforting to read. It's tough at a time like this, to read or watch what's detached from our lives today. They are finding solace in the familiarity the book offers."

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First Published: 26 April, 2020 08:01 IST

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