Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Far Be It From Me

(transcript at foot of post)
Face-to-face criticism of someone's grammar, eating habits, the way they dress... all risky enterprises. Like the average Joe or Josephine, I'd as soon tell a ticket happy traffic cop she were a corrupt little snitch as ask the man at the supermarket checkout for a bag of oatmeal on tick. Such things are taboos, hypothetical situations best left to rise and fall in nightmare visions. Therefore, when Ramazan comes round and most good folk are supposedly fasting, I tend to keep the old trap shut in public.

It's better to stick to what you know than to stick your head in where it's surely unwelcome. For instance, I was brought up in what we would innocently call a Christian country. Nowadays, that kind of remark has become politically incorrect. Though I've lived for over twenty years in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim, even here the urge to use such language precludes many people from calling this a Muslim country, so as a rule I don't. And even a coupla decades is not long enough for me to become that familiar with the practices here to write critically of them. I can't even speak about circumcision, for example, or the wearing of headscarves, without hedging my remarks down into meaningless banalities. "My mum always used to wear a scarf to go out," I say, "until along came hairspray." Or, "My cousin was circumcised at birth and he's neither a Jew nor a Muslim." Heck, what do I even know about anything?

What the heck I know about fasting is based only on personal experience when, around thirty years ago, I took part in a series of sponsored fasts that were organised by peace movement groups in conjunction with the charity War On Want. For example, we did one over Christmas '82 outside the Royal Ordnance Factory at Burghfield near Reading. Starting on the 24th of December, we all went without food for five full days. Unlike the Muslim fast, which ends at sunset each day with a feast, we ate nothing at all. However, also unlike the Muslims, we allowed ourselves drinks - water and black unsweetened tea. Of course, had we not drunk anything, we would all have been in hospital long before the five days were up. Thirst is not something anyone would want to do for twenty-four hours, which everyone should know.

Going without food for a few days is hardly as risky - provided you're not a diabetic, suffer from heart disease or even mild digestive conditions. It also helps if you're not alone in the undertaking. Stamping outside the gates of ROF Burghfield, we got through the first day - Christmas Eve - without much trouble. I think those of us who were drinkers craved our Christmas ales & tots more than the mince pies our friends and relatives at home were scoffing. The only physical side effects of the first 24 hours were waking up on Christmas morning with wrenching guts, a touch of nausea and a strange light headedness.

That lightness of being persisted throughout the second day, during which we were visited by many sponsors, other well-wishers and the odd reporter, most of whom curious to know how it felt going hungry when everyone else was getting stuffed. While some fasters were happy to rattle on about the politics of spending trillions of pounds on weapons of mass destruction as a quarter of the planet went starving, some of us spent much of the day dreaming up and sharing menus - food lists that became more and more bizarre as the sun went down.

It was at various times during Christmas Night that several of us got up to be sick. "That's the bile coming out," said one experienced faster, as though vomiting were part of a healing process. Our stomachs being empty - apart from the residues of many cups of tea - there was nothing to chunder that wasn't a throat burning, foul smelling slime. Morning on day three was when the smokers found they couldn't smoke any more. Having happily puffed their way thus far, the nicotine now went straight up to their heads and down into their guts. Those poor souls had to cope with drug withdrawl as well as hunger. So Boxing Day was a day of ears buzzing in the brittle December wind and an inner chill settling in.

Surprisingly, the fourth and fifth days were much easier than the second and third. We started to shun tea for plain boiled water. We had headaches but felt little pain and less nausea inside us. Our food fantasies lingered on, became even more abstract indeed, but less craving. One guy kept going on about kippers with custard, which became a lovely image for even those of us who were vegetarians. Food morphed into an abstract concept. Around this time, a psychologist supporter turned up and told us we were now like primitive hunter gatherers who had been out in the field for so long that our instinctual survival mechanisms had kicked in.  Natural opiates were dulling our hunger and the jokes we were sharing were evidence our brains were drawing on fat reserves to keep us sharp. He then went on to show a parallel between our situation and that of people living in drought areas of Africa. This was interesting and prescient (in retrospect) since the famine in Sudan and Ethiopia which led to Band Aid was still a year or so in the future. Some of us began to suggest that, having attracted some local media attention, we extend the fast indefinitely and make a bid for World Peace. We were hallucinating, of course.

Doctors and children can tell you everything you need to know about refusing food. Doctors will say, eat regularly if you want to stay healthy and the best diet of all is three light meals a day. As most children know, the best way to get what you want is to refuse your food. The hunger strike takes fasting to its illogical conclusion, death. Bobby Sands had gone that way only a year or so before, refusing food while imprisoned for Provisional IRA activity. Actually, I believe many of us in the peace movement at the time had much sympathy with the so-called Nationalist side in The Troubles. But the death of Bobby Sands was a feature of the struggle with Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government we cared not to identify with in public. There are so many taboos associated with the eating and non-eating of food - or certain foods - but our aim was not confrontation. Perhaps our protest was idealistic or even child-like, but we really were seeking to heal the planet.

Towards the end, there was a great feeling of togetherness at the temporary Peace Camp; but finally the fast broke up with most of us going our separate ways on the evening of the fifth day. I got a lift into London, where I spent the night with some old friends. I broke my fast with a bowl of vegetable soup. I wasn't ravenous at all. Perhaps my stomach had shrunk? The next morning, I had a half a bowl of muesli and then caught the bus back to Liverpool, a door-to-door journey of about eight hours. Not looking particularly thin, nor demanding a whole Christmas pud to myself, the old family and friends were dubious I had really gone the full five days without eating. So, somewhat disappointingly for a stoyteller, there was no slaughtering of fatted calf at the return of this prodigal.

When you finish something like this, it's tempting to talk about "the conquest of desire" as though a battle has been fought and won. In fact, fasting's parallels with military conquest are scanty or, at best, dubious. Though the importance of comradeship is paramount (to employ one of Margaret Thatcher's favourite words, as in, "the wishes of the islanders are paramount"), there is no orgy of victory. Instead, the participant is left with a quiet strength. In this kind of fasting, hunger is curbed and so no feasting is either desired or appreciated.

Transcript of above from Reading's Red Rag (Britain's only newspaper) Dec 1982:


Britain's only newspaper interviewed a spokesperson from the Burghfield Peace Campaign who are currently holding a fast outside the Royal Ordinance Factory at Burghfield. 25/12/82.

r.r. How many of you are taking part in the fast?

s.p. About 20 or so.

r.r. Where are you actually holding the fast?

s.p. Most fasters are sat at a brazier by the back gate of the factory, but there is continuous presence at the front, entrance and we've got a portacabin for shelter.

r.r. Have you had a lot of support?

s.p. Yes, we've had a steady stream of visitors, and lots of support from passing cars.

r.r. What about madia coverage?

s.p. We've been interviewed by the Post and Chronicle, Thames and TVS television and Radio 210. On the other hand the BBC said it a was the most boring news item they'd ever heard. We said the person in question was the most cynical person we'd ever spoken to.

r.r. What did you have for Christmas dinner?

s.p. A cup of hot water.

r.r. What about the vegetarians?

s.p. Ecologically and Ideologically sound water.

r.r. Fluoride Free?

s.p. Oh No! Blast!

- The fasters will be there 'til midnight on Tuesday pointing out the connections between Arms spending and world hunger. They are also raising funds for War on Want and any donations or support are of course welcome.

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