Previously published in Winterwind magazine, 2013. A social experiment I couldn't get away with nowadays as a dad...
With Those Less Fortunate
A few years ago now, I remember being surprised by the news I would not be allowed to visit friends at Dungavel Detention Centre. The reason for this (or at least, the reason they seemed to wish to imply) was simple. As I refer to myself as a writer in public, I might well go ahead and write about the conditions. A brief check with the arrangements at Barlinnie prison assured me that I could speak to friendly prisoners in that fine establishment with the suitable arrangements. (None of my honoured friends have yet found themselves in that place of abode, so that is a matter of principle just now and not one put to the test!) And this makes sense: after all, the children of torture victims who seek asylum in the UK are much more dangerous than our rapists and murderers. Which is why, of course, we keep these people in Category A and B prisons.
Not that the victimisation of the vulnerable in societies we consider civilised is anything new. I find we tend to take general rights for granted when they are available to us every day. In fact, a journalist of renown recently referred to the UK as a “crypto-fascist regime” without seemingly even putting her mind to the fact that she was allowed to make those very remarks publicly and free. And in that in many sadly non-historical regimes currently in the world, such freedom of speech is non-existent, and met with imprisonment or much worse. Through the curious fluke of geography and birth, many of the people who read this are free to openly slag their government, neighbours and laws without fear of discrimination.
Yet, there are fights which still need to be fought: against folk who for reasons unknown to me think that a person might be lesser because they are female, or a specific race, or sexuality. All of these things are largely irrelevant to how a person is, and yet people still find ways to bring it up as a barrier.
Which is a nuisance (with a personal hat on) when it’s the odd ignorant taxi driver or Daily Mail reader. They can’t help that, they read the Daily Mail for god’s sake! It’s another thing entirely when it’s a government.
At this point I should put my cards on the table. I am recipient of ESA (Employment Support Allowance, a sickness benefit for those readers outside of the UK). This is because of several health issues I have had since birth – a complication of mums illness, the Barton family genetics, and birthing complications – and which I will have till death. On a good day/week/month/year (I hope for more of the latter in time) they harm me finding and keeping a job down. On a bad day/week/month/year, or on current form, decade, they frequently harm my chances of not dying. It’s not particularly fun, but one is left with the cards on the table one is given. When one has lemons, one must try to make lemonade.
As someone utterly dependent on government assistance as a result (and rather grumpy about that fact, but oh well) I am completely grateful, as you can imagine, that the government in the UK is entirely 100% supportive of the disabled, unemployed and poor. Or that no major selling newspaper has run exposes on the slackers who don’t pay tax [myth alert: we do pay tax, these things are percentaged towards incomings, however, so someone on the bare minimum pays less than those with loads of dosh!] and are running the hard working honest citizens of the world from keeping their money to themselves. Oh...wait.
Naturally I try to ignore the Express and the Mail and their ilk as much as possible. And have perfected my eye rolling technique to whenever a half-brained right winger shows up on Newsnight and speaks of their “general public’s opinion” when in fact they actually mean “my opinion”. Funny how the mood of the public always seems to chime exactly with their own, isn’t it? I often find the mood of the general public is a hung parliament in which no two people can agree on if man walked on the moon, let alone social welfare or capital punishment or EU membership!
But I do feel lucky. Because, at my last count, there was 4.4million people in the UK worse off than Mandy and me. Which was a calculation made prior to the recent tightening up of the welfare system in the UK, so has probably increased. I have, within my scope of experience, become aware of increasingly more people abandoned by the system – through no fault of their own – who resort to food banks to avoid starving. Some others don’t even have that luxury. [For those who wish to parse things, I speak from the experience of a brief spell of being unable to feed myself, when food bank offers WERE a luxury compared to the odd scone.]
Some people, tragically, have been left to starve to death. [And whilst there have been several of these incidents, I must admit that even one alone would be a failing and a tragedy as far as I am concerned.] There was a child in Westminster, a poor middle-aged couple near Northampton, and the chap the BBC went to investigate, who sadly died soon after broadcast early this year as just a few examples. Which makes FOX News idea you could get rid of welfare as “no one died of starvation before it”, despite the evidence of one of the supposedly most civilised countries, all the more galling.
But then, I am reminded of Winston Churchill announcing that the rations allowed for the public looked entirely sensible and fair to him, not realising that what he assumed was a DAYS supply of food was in fact a week’s! When one has no life experience of hardship, ones belief of what it might be is limited, and far better off than the reality faced by so many.
There was a time in 2009 when me and Mandy went 2 months without any money. This was because someone in a call centre had ticked the wrong box on an online form, which blocked all available benefits to both of us, and it took the job centre that length of time to fix the error. When one does not even have the money to attend interviews in the first place, one finds getting out of that particular poverty trap nigh impossible. We survived off dinner at friends and meeting my Mum for lunch, while Mum dived into her limited savings to help prevent our electricity being cut off at that time. We were lucky – other folk don’t have that luxury.
I’m not one to shirk responsibility for when things go wrong that are my fault. In fact, thanks to Catholic guilt, which still persists from childhood, one often feels bad about things people have forgiven and forgotten over ten years previously. Yet, I don’t believe that disabilities one is born with, or shortcomings because someone else made a mistake and was unwilling to fix it, should condemn a human to starvation if they aren’t lucky enough to have me and Mandy’s family.
And further cuts and the removal of all benefits during appeals (79% of which are successful; in one case I know of personally – though neither of my own - , because the appeal judge saw first hand that the person who had written the report up to deny benefits had LIED) suggests that the threat of starving becomes all the more real for the poor, unemployed and sick in Cameron’s Britain.
Now, there is the small voice at the back of my head. Aha, it says, the ability to compile evidence by reading and knowing is all very well, but what about empirical evidence?
And so, I decide to take on an experiment: To fast for a period of 30 hours.
Twenty-four hours wasn’t much of a challenge, personally, as I have accidentally gone that far without eating before, engrossed in a novel or writing or just sleeping off a migraine. In fact, I am known for my breakfasts at six in the evening. Going from six pm on the 6th, to midnight the next night, seemed a reasonable period to try out. After all, whilst I am an unwell person, I am in full control of the physical side of it at the point being. I felt I owed it to those in less lucky situations to try and get into their boots for one day at least. After all, one finds a sense of perspective all the easier to empathise with, if one can feel solidarity with those less fortunate.
On Monday, at 6pm, I had a baked potato and several slices of pizza. I did not tell Mandy of my grand plans, for she would have put the skiboosh on it before you could say “Scary Paisley woman”.
The next twenty-four hours went as normal. Not even a pang of hunger, as I’m not used to those. (Actually, I eat because I know one has to, not because I get compulsion to – funny brain chemicals.) I spent the day reading Heart of Darkness (not recommended), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (better) and Animal Farm (still one of the finest books in the English language). So far, all was going to plan.
Around nine pm (twenty-seven hours in) I started to feel a highly unusual feeling. That pang of hunger deep in the pit of the stomach, so foreign a stranger to the mentally ill. Still, I continued on. I kept drinking Irn Bru during this time, which was to produce an unforeseen side affect later on.
Around ten pm on Tuesday night is when it all started to go wrong. I had not eaten for twenty-eight hours, and suddenly my body started rebelling. I began clock watching with great anxiety, and the clock responded by slowing down seemingly. My fingers were beginning to shake, and my forehead was sweating more profusely than an addict in withdrawal. My sinuses pounded and my chest tightened, even with the application of several doses of medication. I found that the breath wouldn’t go deep down into the diaphragm no matter how many deep breathes I took, so the cramping in the lower regions one associates with heavy asthma remained.
All through that hour, things started getting worse. I tried to take my mind off things by reciting the US Presidents in order in my head – one of my standard tricks for keeping the brain in gear, as I get too confused around the order of the Victorian English PMs to keep track US presidents. Even that simple information was starting to fuzz over in my brain, and I began to realise that my mind too was starting to frazzle out.
It was now eleven pm, and as my brain, sinuses, breathing and other areas were now starting to complain, I did the only thing I could do. I tapped out, and threw in a microwave meal as the quickest food to make in the house.
In my perfectly thought out view of how things would work, I had assumed I could put dinner in the oven around half eleven, ready for midnight. Funny how the idealistic belief rarely meets the cold reality.
[Those of a squeamish nature may wish to avoid the next paragraph]
I had barely put the dinner into defrost, when a sinking feeling hit me. I think everyone has their own internal warning system for when they are going to throw up. Mine is hard to explain, a certain thinner but fouler tasting saliva begins to build up at the back of my throat very quickly. So off I rushed to the loo, and you can guess the rest. I hadn’t eaten that day, but that didn’t stop my stomach removing anything it could. It felt poisoned, and I felt a wreck.
[Those of a squeamish nature may continue now.]
I sat on the bed, eating the microwave meal slowly. Mandy, who had been asleep most of the day due to her pregnancy, but who on waking at half ten had been highly disapproving of my “martyrdom”, spent the entire meal watching me with her well practiced piercing “I told you so” look.
I had foolishly thought that eating would be the end of it. Instead, I was to feel ghastly ill for the rest of the night, and it was two hours more before my breathing difficulties settled down to a point I felt safe enough to sleep without dying in my slumber.
In fact, today I still feel ghastly, and lord knows when I will feel better. But it was always going to be that way, and the killer point is, I can get better, and failure was an option available to me.
My health, though not great, is the fairly robust kind repeated asthma attacks in life tend to make of a person. On a mere twenty-nine hours removed from food however, but NOT removed from medication, it started going downhill to such a degree that, by my estimation, had I continued on that route, I would have required hospitalisation within another 20 hours or so. Which made it possibly a rather more foolish experiment than I had anticipated, but equally, I’d argue, an even more important one to make.
For I feel there was a degree of control about the experiment. It was purely will power and that alone that kept the experiment going, there was food within easy access for me the moment I felt it had gone too far, and indeed, there was when I felt it had. I made sure we had access to ample amounts of my medication, and waited till a point when my breathing was reasonably stable foremost. Even so, the drastic change was quite surprising, and frightening.
It tells me just how quickly the poor and disabled could go downhill without the assistance to get food. With current welfare plans, and with my own knowledge of impoverished people I know and like, that scenario is a reality, without the easy ways out I was able to give myself. And that, far more than any hardship I put myself through in the name of social research, is the thing that frightens me most of all.