interviews / Q&A's




Author Charlie Laidlaw publishes Being Alert! this month, a satire set in a Britain led by inept PM Winston Spragg, and dealing with a virus that breaks out in China. Sound familiar? Here, Charlie joins us in The Literary Lounge and discusses his book, COVID and the importance and rich tradition of satire in Britain.


The COVID-19 pandemic is not remotely funny. In the UK, it has caused the deaths of over 50,000 people. Worldwide, that figure is closing in on one million. [At the time of writing.]

So why write a satire about COVID-19 with an intention to make people laugh? Well, I haven’t. My book, Being Alert!, isn’t about the virus, but rather about the UK government’s response to it. The virus isn’t funny, but the government is fair game. In that, it follows in a long tradition of British satire.

The book, which ends in July 2020, populates Downing Street and Whitehall with an inept prime minister, Winston Spragg, presiding over a dysfunctional government as it deals with an existential threat that rapidly becomes a national crisis. It remains true to the timeline of COVID-19 and the government’s response to it, including its failure to lock down sooner, secure adequate supplies of PPE or protect the care sector.

Like satires before it, the book uses humour to paint an uncomfortable picture of a government in crisis, and seemingly as concerned about justifying itself as working to suppress the virus. As the book progresses, with a mounting death toll, I hope the book strikes a changing balance as both a month-by-month narrative about the virus and a comedy to mirror unfolding events.

As the country emerges into a new normal, the country will inevitably want to know why, per head of population, we have suffered worse than any other European country. Being Alert! Is, I hope, a perfect outlet, not just to ask very real questions of government but to use humour as a satirical and healing tool.

My book follows in a tradition that was honed by the likes of Hogarth, Austen and Dickens. Political and social satire is, for some reason, something that the British are very good at. It’s about holding up a mirror to unfolding events and questioning the accepted narrative that government tries to make us believe.

Satire is about carrying a very large stick. Think no further than Orwell’s 1984 or Animal Farm. But satire is also of the people, by the people – something democratic, but something that often had to be hidden because, in times past, the truth could be dangerous.

We can still see those satirical truths in popular nursery rhymes. For example:

Mary Mary quite contrary

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockle shells

And pretty maids all in a row.

That’s actually about the sixteenth-century English Queen, Mary I, whose brutal persecution of Protestants earned her the nickname of ‘Bloody Mary’.  The ‘garden’ references the cemeteries she filled with her victims; ‘silver bells and cockleshells’ are slang for torture implements, and the ‘maiden’ was a form of guillotine.

Queen Mary was also the inspiration for another rhyme:

Three blind mice, three blind mice,

See how they run. See how they run.

They all ran after the farmer’s wife,

Who cut off their tails with a carving knife.

Did you ever see such a sight in your life?

As three blind mice.

This refers to three Protestant bishops who were convicted of treason and burned at the stake – but not before, reputedly, being blinded and dismembered.

Equally loved is this:

Jack and Jill went up the hill

To fetch a pail of water.

Jack fell down

And broke his crown,

And Jill came tumbling after.

Jack and Jill are King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antionette. They both lost their crowns (and their heads) in the French revolution of 1793–94.

The derivation of the following children’s rhyme is more widely known:

Ring-a-ring o’ roses

A pocket full of posies

A-tishoo! A-tishoo!

We all fall down.

It’s about another pandemic: the bubonic plague in the seventeenth century, with one of the first symptoms being a rosy rash. For protection, people would carry sweet-smelling herbs with them.

At the appropriate time, the UK government – and other governments – will be asked about their responses. In the meantime, my book, like these popular rhymes, offers a satirical perspective on events and, perhaps, on how a great many lives could have been saved.

British satire has a long, rich and important tradition.


Charlie Laidlaw’s Being Alert! is available in a digital format from Amazon from 12 August 2020 at £3.99. For further information see the author’s website.


Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Charlie Laidlaw. This piece on Being Alert! COVID and British satire is © Charlie Laidlaw 2020. It was published in August 2020 and the stats supplied by the author relate to the time it was written. All opinions are his own.

Also of interest:By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’; ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’;‘We should all be feminists‘; The not-so-invisible woman: 150 greats in their own words’; ‘How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original “Penguin Ten”‘; Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday – Romek Marber for Penguin Crime (book covers we love).

Select Q&As/interviews: ‘Meet Charlie Laidlaw’; ‘Meet Paul E. Hardisty’;‘Lilja Sigurðardóttir’; ’Tom Cox’; ‘Vanda Symon; ‘Gunnar Staalesen’; Some like it hot – the joy of Carole Mortimer, award-winning novelist‘; Gina Kirkham;John Fairfax’; ‘Ian Ridley’; ‘David Stuart Davies’.


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