Twenty Twenty: Revisiting a book that predicted the pandemic 25 years ago
In 1995, Hodder and Stoughton published Nigel Watts fourth book, 'Twenty Twenty', a blueprint for 2020 which eerily and accurately predicts a global pandemic that occurs in the year 2020. The fiction book follows two main characters, William and Julia, through a post-pandemic, mask-wearing, virtual-technology world, where there is a drastic reduction in air travel which leads to 'virtual tourism' and nature fighting back for its survival due to mankind's destruction of the planet.
Tragically, Nigel took his own life in 1999 and now 25 years later, his widow, former BBC broadcaster and the first Asian female presenter on Countryfile, Sahera Chohan relaunches this timely and relevant book this August; the book's anniversary month.
'iGlobal' caught up with the Sahera to find out more about the book, the author and the healing process republishing her late husband's work during a lockdown that he predicted.
“It was unbelievably uncanny the amount of similarities that he got correct in terms of what we're living through today. I just thought this needs to be out in the world again, and in some ways it's more prescient today than it was 25 years ago.”
A stark warning
The book is centred around the Kogi, an Amazonian Colombian tribe which is still in existence today and was brought into prominence by documentary filmmaker Alan Ereira in 1990. Nigel was particularly taken by the tribe's message that if we continue to behave towards the world as we have been, it and its people will get very sick. Nigel ties their message into the novel by presenting them in a virtual reality programme. Throughout the book, he makes references to virtual travel, fingerprint ID, furlough and many such eerie similarities to our reality today.
“Nigel's whole purpose for writing was to shake people awake, to wake people up the fact that we're doing great damage to the environment in the way we live and the relationship we have with the planet. When it came to writing, he would ask “is it worth cutting down a tree for ” He was very conscious of what he was going to write; it needed to matter and it needed to make a contribution.”
Reading about the future
Just before Christmas in 2019, Sahera had gone for a walk with a friend when she remembered that it had been almost 20 years since she'd last read Nigel's 'Twenty Twenty' and that it would be particularly apt to read it in the new decade. She couldn't remember many details from the novel, so then, when lockdown struck in March 2020 and she was off work on furlough, she decided to reread the story and she discovered the bizarre retelling of the future.
“When I pulled the book from the bookshelf and read the dust jacket saying "an aging writer retreats to the Canadian waste, infected with a deadly virus", I was like “hang on a minute, what ” There are many layers to the book. The two main characters, William and Julia, are offspring from Nigel's first and third book, and they discover these old books in 2020 that were written about them, and they set off on a quest to find the author. The “author” in the book is 63 in 2020 and his wife is a South Asian TV presenter with a diamond stud in her nose. So you can imagine when I'm reading it, I'm reading what our lives would have been together had he not taken his life, so on an emotional and metaphysical level, there was a lot going on for me as I read it.”
Republishing in lockdown
The book received rave reviews when it launched in 1995 from The Times, Time Out, Sunday Times and more. The Times said: “Twenty Twenty is about the end of the world, viral apocalypse, virtual reality [it] asks the big questions at a time of global destruction and spiritual uncertainty an intriguing synthesis between ancient mysticism and the brave new world of virtuality. It is a book to make the pulse race, the mind dance and the heart sink.”
As it launched over two decades ago, there was no digital copy of the book. A publisher had taken interest in relaunching the novel, but not until 2021, but as it was called 'Twenty Twenty', it was a clear decision for Sahera, who discovered she was a writer after Nigel's passing, to take it on and publish it in the year 2020. It felt it was her duty and an honour to do so.
“The digital version we received back was absolutely full of mistakes. It took me four proof reads and lots of rewriting and there was a moment when I felt like I was writing his words and like he was in the room with me, telling me not to change certain parts because it wasn't mine. It was a very heartening experience, and then when it published, all of a sudden, I received lots of wonderful messages from friends and family thanking me for bringing his work back into the world again.”
Remembering Nigel Watts
Nigel took his life 20 years ago. Coming to terms with his suicide was not an easy or straight forward process for Sahera, who remembers him and wants to continue his legacy. “I've had to heal - either that or I would have followed him.”
“It wasn't just a running away from, it was also some sense of running towards, he always had this real need for union. He was an extremely spiritual man and he found it hard to be here in this world.”
Nigel had a strong affinity to India and its way of viewing nature and people as one. He would often tease Sahera that he was more Indian than her.
In his PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of East Anglia, he quoted the importance of union: "Consider yourself a bag of bones separate from your environment, and you will have the moral immunity to treat the world and its contents as things.”
Protesting and agitating
Nigel used his writing to protest and agitate. Had he been alive today, Sahera is sure that he would be on the frontline of climate change protests and supportive of the young activists like Greta Thunberg.
In 'Twenty Twenty', he makes reference to children as beacons of hope for the planet: “Our generation knew our cleverness would be our undoing, but we thought the end would come quickly, apocalyptically. We were wrong. It was our children, born into the 21st century, who could truly see it was not a bullet to the head that would kill us, but the seeping of poison into our blood stream. It is too late now. We have already killed the Mother, just as the Kogi foresaw."
by Vidhu Sharma
More info: 'Twenty Twenty' by Nigel Watts, available on Amazon.