Hunger Games: Simon Armitage

Nil by mouth – the poet meditates on why the concept of not eating is difficult to swallow

Peter Skyllberg’s car. Image: Getty

I’m thinking of that phrase, “Civilization is only three meals deep,” and its profound implication that societies which have developed to the most sophisticated cultural and technological levels over thousands of years are but a missed breakfast, a missed lunch and a missed supper away from catastrophic melt-down. Disputes over national borders may be the root cause of many a conflict, but the outline of the stomach is of greater territorial significance.

I’m thinking of the line in the song ‘Garden’ by the Fall on the Perverted by Language album: “Never since birth not eaten in a day.” The closest I came was eleven hours in the Brazilian Rain Forest near to the Venezuelan border, waking up in a waterlogged hammock, the fire having gone out and the food supply having been eaten by bugs. We drifted back to the main camp in a leaky canoe on a slow tributary of the Rio Negro, fantasising about pork chops and Yorkshire puddings, and arrived back in a weak, delirious, almost hallucinatory state of mind, then had to fish in the lagoon for a meal, and caught only spindly, skeletal piranha, those legendary man-eaters which themselves had not eaten for days or even weeks. It was a meal of unspoken irony and diminishing psychological returns. On the same trip, watermelons stored in the heat of the sun seemed to preserve the refrigerated coolness they’d been sold with. Watermelons are reportedly one of those foods containing less energy than is required to chew and digest them. Water, essentially, but somehow made fruit. I’m thinking of Australian “breatharianist” Jasmuheen, formerly Ellen Greve, who claimed to be able to acquire all her daily energy from fresh air, direct sunlight and the occasional cup of tea. And of Wiley Brooks, founder of the Breatharian Institute of America, who rumour has it was once seen leaving a convenience store in Santa Cruz with a hot dog and a packet of Twinkies, the “Golden Sponge Cake with Creamy Filling.” In the mid-eighties, in the student residencies of the UK, epiphytes or “air-pants” were all the rage, those horticultural companions which required zero effort or expenditure to maintain, and represented a kind of philosophical or ideological purity we all aspired to. 82-year-old Indian mystic Prahlad Jani boasts not to have had anything to eat or drink since 1940.

“Brady has been on hunger strike since 1999, an operation which is thought to have cost the public purse in excess of ten million pounds”

I’m thinking, rightly or wrongly, of moors murderer Ian Brady, in his cell at Ashworth Hospital on Merseyside, being pumped with liquid nutrients fed through a nasal tube, supervised by medics and guards. Brady has been on hunger strike since 1999, an operation which is thought to have cost the public purse in excess of ten million pounds. Brady wants to die, and many others wish him every success, although some who wanted him hanged in 1966 now want him kept alive. How else to make him pay?

I’m thinking of King Arthur at Camelot, at Christmastime, who would “never ete/Upon such a dere day, ere hym devised were/Of sum aventurus thyng an uncouth tale.” In other words, wouldn’t touch his food until some fantastical story unfolded before him. Right on cue, the doors of the hall opened and in rode a green knight on a green horse. The war poet and musician Ivor Gurney regularly went without food for up to three days and on at least one occasion walked from London to Gloucester on an empty belly. After absconding from an asylum, the poet John Clare walked from Epping Forest in Essex to the then Northamptonshire village of Helpston, and out of hunger was forced to eat grass.

I’m thinking of the film version of Bill Naughton’s play Spring and Port Wine, in which a stand-off emerges between the domineering father Rafe (James Mason) and his daughter Hilda (Susan George) over a herring.  Hilda refuses to eat it, but the same sad-looking fish is produced at every mealtime until she caves in. It’s only a humble herring, but it represents the old world, a world where obligation came before choice and duty before enjoyment, and for that reason it is difficult to swallow. I’m thinking of something poet and fisherman Ted Hughes once told me, that workers on salmon farms insist on a clause in their contracts stating that salmon will be offered to them as a meal no more than once a week. I’m wondering if there is any food of such nauseating richness that that faced with the prospect yet another forkful a person would rather turn to the wall and waste away until death.

Righteously or wrongly I’m thinking about standing in the foyer of the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York City two months ago, staring at a line of fifty eight people at the food counter, queuing to order buckets of toffee-coated popcorn and vats of sugar-infused drinks. I absented myself from them, encouraged by feelings of a pious and socialist nature, a one-man statement of non-conformism, a stake in the ground against the crude indignities of commercialism and gluttony.

“It did occur to me that for all of Skyllberg’s obvious privation, sixty days on a diet of nothing but freshly fallen Scandinavian snow might prove an appealing and expensive detox programme if marketed to the right audience”

Sympathy for the world’s starving and malnourished won’t lead to wholesale abstinence any time soon, but is a little restraint out of the question, at least between meals?  Or at least during a film?

I’m thinking of desperate sailors eating their nail cuttings, their sandals, their hair, the men of the doomed Franklin Expedition finally turning the cutlery on their own dead, and that Not The Nine O’Clock News sketch where the survivors of a crashed airplane on a remote mountain admit to finally succumbing to the on-board meal. “Well, we’d already eaten the other passengers.” I’m thinking back to 1987, writing a poem called “Snow Joke” in which a depressed and suicidal man drives his Volvo car into a moorland snowdrift and goes to sleep there. Then reading recently about one Peter Skyllberg who did the same thing, (apparently), in the very same model of car, and was found alive in the vehicle two months later after eating nothing but snow. Experts speculate that temperatures which fell as low as -30C may have contributed to his survival in the sense that his metabolism slowed to something like that of a hibernating animal.

News reports were quick to compare Skyllberg’s experience with that of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, who died after sixty six days of refusal. Curious to see the place where my poem and real life had intersected I flew to Umeå in Northern Sweden, found the car in a remote pine forest and climbed inside it. In the UK, the dark blue Volvo estate would have been ransacked, stripped down and very probably torched, but everything was still in place, including plastic cups stuffed with cigarette butts, piles of clothes, bedding, notebooks and magazines, assorted shoes in the foot-well, sunglasses in the door-pocket, a packet of sanitary towels in the passenger glove-box and a smell that the twenty six letters of the English alphabet cannot properly evoke, no matter which order I put them in. But no evidence of food.

They say one man’s meat is another man’s poison, and just for a second or two it did occur to me that for all of Skyllberg’s obvious privation, sixty days on a diet of nothing but freshly fallen Scandinavian snow might prove an appealing and expensive detox programme if marketed to the right audience. There was a pen on the dashboard which I’m afraid I couldn’t resist. In fact I wrote this article with it.

I’m thinking of the Communion Wafer as the ultimate food and the ultimate non-food combined. I’m thinking of not eating today, but I’m also thinking of those watermelons.

Simon is a poet, playwright and novelist from Yorkshire