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Sally Nicholls introduces All Fall Down

All Fall Down, first published seven years ago and republished this month by Andersen Press, explores how one family in 14th century England is affected by the plague that killed nearly half of the UK's population. Here, author Sally Nicholls tells us what messages the book holds for today's young reader.

Sally Nicholls writes, "I'm thrilled that Andersen are reprinting All Fall Down, but saddened that, in the seven years since it was first released, it seems to have become such a timely book.

Dystopia has been in the air a lot over the last couple of years. There's the rise of the Far Right in Europe and of anti-immigrant feeling at home, the fears about what might happen under a no-deal Brexit, and the increasingly urgent threat of climate breakdown, with the promise of food shortages, climate migrants, wildfires and societal collapse. (It's a very real threat. The last time CO2 levels were this high, we had palm trees on the North Pole. That's the temperature our planetary oven is currently set to, and if we do nothing, that's the temperature our slowly-heating oven will eventually reach. And we are not doing anything. We are pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere every year.)

It's frightening, but somehow hard to take seriously. We're so used to living in a secure and settled society, we don't really believe that it could change. And we don't have much of a sense of what really happens to societies when things start to fall apart. How much do things need to go wrong before we actually get societal collapse? Does Blitz spirit really bring society together?

The Black Death of 1348 was not a dystopia. It was the single biggest catastrophe in historical memory. It is believed to have killed around 45% of the British population - by contrast, the First World War killed around 1.8%. When you add the Hundreds Year War and the Great Famine of 1315-17 to the mix, it's no surprise that the population of Europe halved in the fourteenth century.

I loved apocalypse novels when I was a teenager, so the Black Death interested me, because it was a real apocalypse. People living through it literally expected the four horsemen of the apocalypse to start walking the streets. I was interested in all the ways this apocalypse was different to fictional apocalypses. And all the ways it was the same.

There are more parallels with modern society (and particularly the climate crisis) and the fourteenth century than are perhaps comfortable. The first is a general assumption that the pestilence couldn't come here. Western Europe was quite sanguine about plagues hitting Eastern non-Christian countries - they assumed it was the action of a vengeful God. Until it came to them.

England was pleased to think that the people of France would be killed by the pestilence. Until it came to England.

And Scotland was delighted that its ancient enemies were being wiped out, until You get the idea.

But there's also hope. There's always hope. Despite the horrific death rate, society did not break down. The years after the Black Death were actually ones of great social change. There were improvements in quality of life for villeins, for women, and for the peasantry in general.

Humans, it turns out, are good at survival. In general, if not individually.

I've read a lot of gloomy takes on climate breakdown over the last year, and it is easy to feel downhearted. I do believe that times of great hardship and trouble are coming for our planet. But I do not believe that society is about to collapse. I believe we will work together and find a way through. But I believe we need to start facing that truth head on, if we're going to survive it."

05/09/2019Sally Nicholls introduces All Fall Down
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