Friday, 9 June 2017
The nature of starvation
This is an essay that I wrote in the late 1980s, as a radio piece. It was short, and harsh, because I delivered it in a voice lacking any sense of outrage. Some 15 years later, in Auschwitz, I heard a young Polish lady telling us the Holocaust story, in similar dispassionate tones.
The style packs a punch, because the listener hears no outrage, but is free to feel outraged. Demagogues, please take note: you don't quiver with rage, you nurture just rage — and then you may pass for human.
Anyhow, the producer listened as I recorded it in a single take, and then called it “a real smack in the gob”, which please me, because she and I knew what that meant. It won a minor award (a "highly commended" in the Michael Daley Awards, I think), after which I allowed a number of charities to use it for free. For all I know, it’s still being used.
So if it sounds familiar, that’s good — but it started with me.
The scene is Australia, where New Year’s Day is in summer, but it could be any day, anywhere.
It is the first of January, a hot, muggy, hung-over New Year’s Day morning in Australia. The time is just six-thirty, and the sun is already well up in the sky, as the first airliner of the day lumbers down the airport runway, lurches sluggishly into the air, banks, turns, and flies away at an altitude of five hundred metres.
It roars across the suburbs, disturbing the well-fed dreams of hope and New Year’s resolutions for last night’s revellers. Then leaving the suburbs behind, still flying at five hundred metres, it ploughs noisily into a mountain, killing everybody on board. Silence is restored … but not for long.
Two and a half minutes after the first plane lifted off, another fully loaded jet rumbles off along the same flight path to the same mountain, and again, all on board die. That second plane is followed by another, and another, and another, every two and a half minutes, right through the morning.
By 7.10 am, before most people have even had their breakfast, the air deaths have already exceeded the annual Australian road toll. All day, the planes fly, but mercifully, they stop at 6.30 pm, just as Australia sits down to dinner.
For all the horror this image brings to mind, the day’s unceasing carnage has only just kept pace with the numbers who died of starvation in the Third World that New Year’s Day. For them, there has been no hope, from us, there has been no resolution.
Before breakfast the next day, the obscene procession starts all over again, running to the same deadly timetable, for another twelve hours. Just after lunch on January the second, you can add in those killed at Nagasaki as well, and still the planes keep taking off, and crashing. Still they do no more than equal the deaths from starvation.
By the evening of the third, the toll has expanded to cover those who died at Hiroshima. The planes must fly for four months more, before we can count in the deaths in the Nazi concentration camps that took seven ghastly years to notch up.
Before the year’s end, you will be able to throw in all the battle-field deaths of World War II as well. There will be time enough left, in fact, for flights to cover Vietnam, the genocidal outbursts of Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and Papa Doc Duvalier, and still there will be flights to spare.
Each day, the deaths will have only just matched the deaths around the world from starvation. All the sickening holocausts, all the brutal massacres, all the killing fields of the latter half of this century, all of them equalled, corpse for corpse, in just eleven months.
But to kill as many as starvation and starvation-related disease will kill in just that single year, the flights cannot stop . . not yet. They must go on, right up until 6.30 pm on December the thirty-first.
Then, next morning, it will be a new year, and the flights must begin all over again.
Starvation does not take holidays.
For the starving, there is no hope, from us, there is no resolution.
One air crash is front-page news. Two crashes on the one day, and they will have special news bulletins. Make it three, and there will be a Royal Commission, resignations and sackings. It’s a funny old world.