Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat: hope not war in the face of pandemics and such

“The business and organisation we think we control everything about is fundamentally flawed. It is fuelled by self-interest, not to mention an omnipresent belief that a well-planned system is one we can never lose control of.” This is our environment. It informs our individual lives.

Are we ready for pandemic novels? Sarah Hall’s new book “Burntcoat” tests our resilience

Around the country, we are seeing everything we can think of closing down as a precautionary measure – not because it’s personally significant but because it is widespread. Rising temperatures, invasion by diseases, swine flu, antibiotics, pest control, road closures: we have no problem with most of this – or so we think – because we believe we can cope with it.

Sarah Hall, who visited the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 2011 after coming across numbers of people “with food poisoning, or vomiting and diarrhea, or coming out of hospital with sepsis, requiring hospitalisation”, knew that was not just a challenge for medical science but also for our wider culture.

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The internet, in which, in 2011, only 1% of social media connections were from people outside the UK, was, she realised, the perfect breeding ground for this climate of fear. Inspired by her husband’s misfortunes, she became a real-life ghostwriter of rural folktale tales. Burntcoat is a collection of these stories; its target audience is large – young people – for whom our lifetimes are live and actively shaped by the way that we deal with crises. This is an attempt, she says, to anticipate them.

Among the tales, there are many incidents of destruction and exposure: explosions, floods, desolation, but also celebrations. The latter is the story of Burntcoat (a town where everyone is either dead or in a coma), when the community gathers as a rehearsal for the apocalypse to throw off its “infestation” and become a new town.

“When it comes to pandemics, we don’t have a textbook to follow, but we do have an ethos of self-sufficiency – so we do build defences. In the community of village reparation, people hear the blaring of a fire alarm as they pass on the way to church and drive past the fire station, so they can unthinkingly muster to say hello,” she explains. “It’s not about local authority or central government; it’s about us doing this because we want to, and because we need to.”

Hall knew that this project had to be told in a novel form to capture the emotion and immediacy of the stories as well as the rhythm of the timeframe. Although she says we can never really know the real impact, “The truth is that the whole landscape of the Middle East turns on whether or not you were vaccinated, whether or not the bullets you bled to death came from Israel or from Gaza. The irony of it is that it’s everywhere and yet it’s becoming less and less common … you sense a monumental change in thinking about this all-important, indivisible thing, which is what you think of when you look in the mirror or when you think about your family, because it’s something so big that, ultimately, there’s no hiding from it.”

Most of these stories start in very ordinary circumstances, which really concerns Hall – the way we “escape” from what we think is manageable. As one character says, “They looked at me and said, you’re not going to die. It’s only death that would defeat you.”

“No,” responds another, when she hears this remark. “We win.” As we begin to understand the effects of the embers of imminent disaster, “they are slowly joined by a sea of dark hills that are the size of the known world. In the sublime loneliness, the terror is still acute.”

Burntcoat is published by Canongate. To order a copy for £9.99, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p

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