Extract Post: Being Alert! By Charlie Laidlaw

Being Alert! begins in January 2020 as the British prime minister, Winston Spragg, first learns about a new illness that seems to be centred in a city in China that nobody has heard of.

Following in a long tradition of British satire, the book populates Downing Street and Whitehall with an inept prime minister presiding over a dysfunctional government as it deals with an existential threat that rapidly becomes a national crisis.

Like satires before it, the book uses humour to paint an uncomfortable picture of a government seemingly as concerned about justifying itself as working to protect the country.

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The beginning

In late January, two Chinese nationals were the first to test positive for coronavirus in the UK. The first officially-recorded fatality took place in China on January 11th.

It was a morning like any other when the Prime Minister, Winston Spragg, received a phone call. He was in the middle of breakfast – croissants (plural), sausage (also plural), bacon, beans, mushrooms, eggs (fried and poached), fried potato and tomato – and didn’t much like to be disturbed that early in the day. He had not long been Prime Minister and was rather enjoying the luxury of having very little to do, having delegated virtually everything to other people who, he rather hoped, were more competent than he was. Not that he was entirely incompetent; after all, he could speak Latin although, he had to concede, there weren’t many people alive he could have a conversation with. An early morning phone call was, therefore, something to be wary of.

On the line was the British ambassador to China informing him of a new disease in China and that it had the potential to spread internationally. “It’s centred on a place called Wuhan,” he added helpfully.

“Never heard of it,” said the PM. “China or Wuhan?”

The PM let this attempt at juvenile humour pass. He had known Sir Humphrey Maddox, Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the People’s Republic, since they were schoolboys chasing each other naked down corridors with wet towels. The PM knew that the ambassador hadn’t forgotten and, with retirement imminent, was planning to write his memoirs. The PM had already considered speaking to the SAS on the matter.

“Wuhan,” said the PM.

“It’s a city rather larger than London. I just thought you should know.” “But, so what?” the Prime Minister demanded.

“Well, it could be something serious. At the moment we just don’t know,” said the official.

“You don’t know?”

“Nobody knows, Prime Minister.”

“Then why are you phoning me?”

“Because you’re the Prime Minister, Prime Minister.”

“Then phone me back when you do know something” replied the PM and replaced the receiver. As a former Foreign Secretary, he was used to useless briefings from under-employed diplomats and, now chewing the last of his sausages, felt rather pleased with his blunt handling of an irrelevant phone call, even if it had been from an old school friend, who might soon merit an obituary in The Times.

I’m the author of two novels, The Things We Learn When We’re Dead and The Space Between Time (due for publication in June 2019). A third novel, Love Potions and Other Calamities, is due to be published in November 2019 (all published by Accent Press).

I was born and brought up in the west of Scotland and graduated from the University of Edinburgh. I still have the scroll, but it’s in Latin, so it could say anything.

I then worked briefly as a street actor, baby photographer, puppeteer and restaurant dogsbody before becoming a journalist. I started in Glasgow and ended up in London, covering news, features and politics. I interviewed motorbike ace Barry Sheene, Noel Edmonds threatened me with legal action and, because of a bureaucratic muddle, I was ordered out of Greece.

I then took a year to travel around the world, visiting 19 countries. Highlights included being threatened by a man with a gun in Dubai, being given an armed bodyguard by the PLO in Beirut (not the same person with a gun), and visiting Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave in Samoa. What I did for the rest of the year I can’t quite remember.

Surprisingly, I was approached by a government agency to work in intelligence, which just shows how shoddy government recruitment was back then. However, it turned out to be very boring and I don’t like vodka martini.

Craving excitement and adventure, I ended up as a PR consultant, which is the fate of all journalists who haven’t won a Pulitzer Prize.

I’m also married with two grown-up children and live in East Lothian. And that’s about it.

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