AA Gill is Awayby A.A. Gill
A. A. Gill is one of the most feared writers in London, noted--according to the New York Times--for his "rapier wit." Some even consider the mere assignment of a subject to Gill a hostile act. But when the notice "AA GILL IS AWAY" runs in the Sunday Times of London, the city can rest peacefully in the knowledge that the writer is off traveling.
"My editor asked me what I wanted from journalism and I said the first thing that came into my head--I'd like to interview places. To treat a place as if it were a person, to go and listen to it, ask it questions, observe it the way you would interview a politician or a pop star," Gill writes.
Upon his return, readers are treated to an account of his vacations to places like famine-stricken Sudan, the pornography studios of California's San Fernando Valley, the dying Aral Sea or the seedy parts of Kaliningrad.
The result is one of the most fascinating, stylish and irreverent collections of travel writing.
- Simon & Schuster
- Publication date:
- Sold by:
- SIMON & SCHUSTER
- NOOK Book
- File size:
- 646 KB
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: The End of the Road
Sudan, May 1998
"There is no famine." Marc Hermant, the lugubrious Belgian head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), south Sudan program, wipes his tired eyes and repeats himself like a patient schoolteacher explaining basic grammar to a thick nine-year-old. I am sorry, no famine? There must be a famine. "Not a Famine in Africa" isn't exactly news. I've seen the footage, it looks like a famine to me, Bob Geldof said it was a famine. "Bob Geldof said that?" Hermant gingerly sips his bright yellow mulligatawny soup. "No, what we have is a potential famine. If something isn't done now there will be famine next year." Ah, so it is the foothills of famine? The preview of famine? A promise of famine? "Yes, now is the hunger gap."
Don't you just love the hunger gap, such a great phrase? It sounds like an advertising slogan: "Mind the hunger gap," "Fill that hunger gap." One hundred years ago the hunger gap would have been familiar all over the earth. It is that lean time when the store food runs out before the harvest has ripened. In Britain, late spring was the time when it was dangerous to be young or old or alone. In Sudan, they plant with the rains, in normal years about now, and harvest in October. The hunger gap should be a month or so -- nature's organic cull of the feeble and the halt and the sick and the unlucky on a species that has no natural predator but itself. This year the hunger gap has come early and the rains haven't come at all -- yet. In the lexicon of professional aid, famine is a technical term. It squats darkly over the horizon, collating its misery, biding its time.
We're sitting in the terrace bar of the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi, 500 miles from the Sudan. It is spitting rain emetically, and has been for a month. El Niño, this year's pan-global excuse for everything, suits the Norfolk, which looks like a down-at-heel Hampshire golf club, suburba-bethan: black beans and steak-and-kidney pudding, faded framed caricatures of long-dead expats with smug grins and neat facial hair. In the lobby the souvenir carry-on of carved giraffes and smiley rhinos graze among the silver boxes of film crews, neatly encapsulating Africa's two great exports: anthropomorphism and bad news. The bellboy hurries back and forth, piling up the delicate technical kit and telescopic legs of investigation and concern. There are a lot of film crews here: the BBC has three; ITN has one, with another on the way. CNN and ABC and a host of others are passing through. Famine always draws a crowd.
Here's how a promise of famine works: people start to die. Charities on the ground blow the whistle, Khartoum wants to show international goodwill, so, despite a civil war, it allows strictly limited food drops. Thirty-six charities and the UN form an umbrella group called Operational Lifeline Sudan and make a deal with the guerrillas, who need to feed their soldiers, and then turn to the world media to provide the advertising. Khartoum says no one is allowed on a charity flight without its visa, which takes months, so forget it. The rebels won't allow anyone into their areas without a pass from them and they won't give it to anyone who has got a stamp from Khartoum, so the film crews have to charter their own aircraft and it is a very expensive operation. Bad news is the province of the rich. Charter prices have gone through the roof: the BBC has leased a Dakota; back home, editors are screaming about vanishing budgets, but like two bluffing poker players, ITN and the BBC won't back down. They need a story and so do the charities. Charities may work as a selfless consciousness of the world at the sharp end, but at the tin-rattling end, they exist in a deeply competitive capitalist market: an appearance by a logo and spokesman on the News at Ten means donations. An American religious charity went to an MSF feeding center and put their T-shirts on the hungry kids to film them -- cash in the tin back home. Someone sent a plane load of anti-hypothermia suits made for Bosnia; ah, well, beggars can't be choosers. Brenda Barton made the front pages and the Nine O'Clock News in her logo T-shirt by feeding two malnourished children with her own breasts. It was a great picture. The fact that she had presumably taken up ten stone of food space on an aid plane to transport a pair of pint-sized breasts to the starving wasn't mentioned. Nor was the horrible symbolism of a fecund European dribbling largesse over black babies, or the sensational tastelessness of flashing gravid teats in front of mothers whose own milk has dried up. "I didn't do it as a publicity stunt," she said. Barton is the press officer of the World Food Programme (WFP) and just happened upon a BBC camera crew in the biggest, emptiest country in Africa.
The journalists at the bar consider starting a charity called Lactaid and holding a red nipple day. Over the cold beers they talk about there not being enough "skellis": skeletal people. ITN coaxed an old woman into a tree to pick leaves. The humor is callous and black but it is forgivable, it is the flak jacket of people who have only their own hard-bitten cynicism to protect their dreams.
The press and charities have a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship: hacks need the charities to find the eyebite-worthy starving; the charities need the publicity. Apart from the familiar charities there are some very weird organizations out here raising money while the sun shines. They have alarming names like Safe Harbour, A-Cross and Victims of the Martyrs. Because, at least in part, the civil war is religious: Christian and animistic south rejecting the imposition of northern Muslim law. There is an absolute prohibition on Bibles. It is a stipulation for continuing aid, but an air traffic controller at Wilson airport in Nairobi tells me she has seen American religious charities smuggling them in anyway. Now explain to me what sort of missionary zeal fills a plane with books when children are dying for milk?
Others smuggle guns, butter and psalms across the Ugandan border with the connivance of a bunch of bona fide foaming dingbats called the Lord's Resistance Army, who kidnap children, and give them Kalashnikovs and the belief that bullets can't touch them. There are rumors of CIA involvement and of links with the Tutsis. Saddam and Gadhafi have their fingers in this pie. Fifteen years of civil war, dislocation, drought, double-dealing, burnt crops and regular bouts of world amnesia have made southern Sudan a rich petri dish for all the fungus and corruption of every conceivable form of apocalyptic, man-made misery.
Paul, the photographer, and I cadge a lift north with an ITN crew. From the air, northern Kenya could be the Scottish borders. This is White Mischief country, Isak Dinesen -- I had a farm in Africa, the landscape of lachrymose colonial bathos and excess. But it exhausts the romance and the bedside literature to peter out into rough khaki scrub that stretches like mouldy pebbledash across the horizon. We are flying in a caravan, a squat, slow, single-engined workhorse, with a pilot who has aviator engraved on his shades. It's no comfort to be flown by someone who has to have their job description etched on their spectacles.
Bahr al Ghazal is a state twice the size of France with a population of perhaps less than a million, but no one's counting. This is where the worst of the proto-famine is. Six hours from Nairobi, it is like flying to Washington in a Morris Minor without a toilet. Tim Ewart, the ITN reporter, slowly does the Telegraph crossword, then gives up to read Mario Puzo (he's on page twenty). Paul and I haven't got passes from the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) guerrillas -- the office in Nairobi was closed -- but we are assured we can get them at the refueling stop in Lokichokio. It's a formality, no problem. Lokichokio: crazy name, crazy place, a border town dropped in a fold in the hills between nowhere and nothing. The line that separates Kenya from Sudan is purely notional. A year ago this was a collection of huts baking in the wilderness, with a landing strip. Now it is a frontier town, a burgeoning collection of tents and hastily built breeze-block cantonments with bars and swimming pools and rooms with showers. It is a boom town, growing to service five Hercules aircraft, tied to the outside world by a thin, potholed, crumbling, rain-washed, bandit-harassed road that winds 1,000 miles to the coast at Mombasa. Everything -- fuel, food, loo paper, Coca-Cola -- has to be driven into Loki. This is Charityville.
In the West, we don't get to see the UN at work. We probably think it is a good idea, a bit wasteful, a bit blunt and slow. But we never get to see where all that money and effort actually goes. It goes here, into these ranks of Toyota Land Cruisers and bubbling tarmac; and guards with walkie-talkies and gangs of black laborers, humping white sacks in the midday sun, and the pilots hanging out with a cold Coke in the Trailfinders bar. And the long lines of dusty tents, each the size of a football pitch, with the letters UN like a twenty-foot-high expletive painted on the sides. When this much neat charity lands on your doorstep, it changes everything: the economy, the social structure, the landscape. UN, the Ultimate Niño. Looking at Loki, it is impossible not to draw the trite conclusion that Africa has simply swapped colonialism for charity and there is very little difference. Both are buttressed with fine words, both in practice are paternalistic and divisive. It is still the white folk in the shade and the black folk humping the sacks.
There is a problem. A big problem. They won't give us a pass. The SPLA has changed the rules: it says it doesn't have authority, we've got to go back to Nairobi. "What do you want to do?" Stick here in Charityville, cadge a lift back tomorrow or the next day, then rent a plane sometime next week, or go on? "You're welcome to wing it," says Tim Ewart. "Basically, if we don't go now, there's no story." Someone says we'll risk it. Startled, I look round, what fool was that? Idiotically, it was me. As the plane takes off Paul says, "What can they do to us? Send us back?" I spend the next three uncomfortable hours thinking of all the things they can do to us. For some apparently good reason, we have left our passports behind. I am traveling across an international border into a war zone illegally, without a passport or a pass. I am going to a place that is twenty miles from the front line, that was evacuated a month ago because it was attacked by the Popular Defence Force. I don't mention the PDF, aka the Murahleen, light cavalry mercenaries employed by Khartoum to ride down the single, vulnerable railway track and do a bit of entrepreneurial terrorism on the side. They came at night, killed two hundred and rustled cattle. No one has been up here since. What can they do to us? Plenty.
Suddenly I'm moved by an unarguable need to pee. There is nowhere to pee. We brought our own water (five inflated dollars a bottle from the hotel), but the bottles are still full. We land in Ajiep. I am hyperventilating with fear, the doors open and the heat greets us like a long-lost relative. "There is some bad news, I am afraid. Mawir Myok Lyal from the SSRA is here." That's bad? "That's bad." The SSRA is the political wing of the SPLA, sort of their Sinn Fein. This Lyal is Gerry Adams. That's bad. Tim Ewart says, "Look, no offense, but I don't know you, I can't risk my story." "We don't know you," says the charity worker. "We can't risk the team on the ground." Quite. "You can hide in the plane," says the pilot, "I'll fly you back." A court martial is better than another six hours in this thing. Sod it, at least I am going to stand in Sudan. Secretary Lyal is sitting at a roughly made table under a shade tree. He is surrounded by lieutenants in T-shirts and bits of fatigued militaria. One bloke has a baseball cap that advertises Men in Black. Lyal is precisely what Central Casting would have ordered for The Wild Geese: imposing, cunning, tough. AA Gill, Sunday Times, London. There has been a bit of a mixup, I'm afraid. I shake his hand with a firm confidence and squat at his feet, cod psychology. He opens his mouth to reply, but he hasn't got any front teeth and it rather spoils the effect. Have we got any identification, he lisps. I give him my press card. He examines it, flips it over and reads, "If found, please hand this card in at the nearest police station." Pauses for a moment. "Okay, you can stay, I'll fix it." Manfully, I restrain myself from French kissing his hand.
We look round for the first time. Nothing prepares you for mass starvation, for the promise of famine. Or rather, everything prepares you for it, years of photographs and terse newsreel, skimmed journalism, accusing posters and award-winning photographs. They all prepare you for it, but none of them protects you from the truth of it. The terrible, terrible, pitiful shock of it. It is not staring at the face of starvation that thuds like a blow to your heart, it is having starvation stare back at you. All our lives, we've examined these people and swallowed the lump, turned the page, been quietly moved, but protected by the one-way mirror of news. We have averted our eyes to the grinning photos of our own plump children framed on the mantel, and felt the shaming relief of the uninvolved. Nothing protects you from the quiet scrutiny of a thousand fly-blown, bloodshot, liver-yellow, starving eyes, and nothing protects you from the smile of welcome. What have the Dinka got to smile about?
Ajiep is where the buck finally stops. Having been passed from hand to mouth around the world it comes to rest in the shade of a thorn tree in this dry, hot earth. Here, finally, is that mythological, nursery teatime place: "Remember all the starving people in Africa." This is what we left on the side of our plates. Here is the end of the longest queue in the world. "The people less fortunate than yourself." When the Dinka look round, there is no one behind them. They are refugees in their own land wandering in an arid, featureless plain, waiting for famine to organize its paperwork.
Technically this isn't a famine because the starvation is only patchy. Some of the Dinka, one of the three main tribes of southern Sudan, are less malnourished than others, but the hunger gap is working overtime. Ajiep is the worst any of the aid workers have seen. There has been no food here for a month. Lifeline Sudan flies its Hercules in broad circles over the area days before food drops. In this land without electricity or even the last century's communications, it is the semaphored signal for people to start walking. They walk enormous distances in an oppressive heat that makes every foot feel like a yard. Through a bush so bereft of natural features, I am lost within fifty paces; they do it carrying their children and with barely any water. We have to drink eight liters a day to avoid dehydration, but the Dinka carry only little carved cups around their necks and sip occasionally. The hardiness is beyond anything you have ever seen on a sports field or running track. And nothing can protect you from their awful beauty.
You couldn't have chosen a more handsome tribe to starve to death: they are tall and rangy, blue-black with high cheeks and broad foreheads with beautiful chevrons scarred on their brows. They wear elegant earrings and bracelets and simple silver crosses; the men carry orchid-leaf-bladed spears and stripling-thin cattle whips. They wear a mixture of swathed and swagged traditional togas and cast-off Oxfam rags. The young girls seem to like slips and nighties, and the mixture of beads and silver and silk petticoats in faded pastels disconcertingly makes them look like this year's Paris catwalk. Everyone moves with a slow grace. The Dinka are incapable of doing anything without a poised elegance. They arrange their limbs with fluid ease; you are always being drawn to the curve of a neck or the etiolated fingers cupping a child's head. They gather in tableaux, like Renaissance frescoes with occasional splashes of cerulean from the men's jellabas.
ITN go off in search of "skellis" and tree-climbing grannies, wrapping their poor-taste cynicism around them like a mackintosh against a storm of pity. I walk to the children's feeding center, a collection of grass huts, where young mothers sit in the sun cradling their infants. The starving children are beyond words. They lie limp and exhausted in the young women's laps, eyes half-closed, limbs like so much kindling. Most are silent, and occasionally tears streak the dusty-sallowed cheeks, attracting the constant flies. Inside the longest hut in the stifling dark a French nurse tersely and efficiently logs the proximity of death. She does a MUAC test (middle upper arm circumference), where a calibrated circle of card is placed around the child's upper arm and slid tight. It is colored green, yellow, orange and red. The orange section means the child is at risk, the red means the child needs therapeutic feeding. The circle is the size of an expensive cigar. She measures weight for height: children who have fallen to 70 percent of body weight are given supplementary rations. At 60 percent, they are kept at the center and fed milk eight times a day under supervision. There are five-month-old babies who weigh the same as they did at birth. An infant who is 60 percent of body weight looks virtually dead. The fragile signs of life flicker like a guttering candle. Their skulls and joints are perfectly drawn through their baggy skins. The hair is as parched and sparse as an old man's, slitted eyes glint through well-like sockets. They exist from moment to moment, small bird-like gnarled hands resting on exhausted breasts. "A Western child wouldn't live two days in this condition," the nurse says. "Here, the ones we can feed have a 90 percent chance of surviving. The transformation over a month is miraculous. They are very resilient, but of course they may have less resistance to illness later." Measles and diarrhea are famine's little helpers.
She has seen 815 children under five: 167 are moderately malnourished by African standards, 404 badly and 234 severely. The center works on a 5 percent higher threshold than anywhere else on the continent, otherwise they would be overwhelmed. All through the bush the Dinka are walking, moving in straggling lines to converge on an open, treeless plain where the food drop will be distributed. In normal days they are pasturalists who plant single subsistence crops and herd cattle. Cattle to the Dinka aren't food, they are everything. They're money, property, holidays, shops, golf clubs, arcades, multiplex cinemas, trips to the pub, walks in the park. A wife costs about forty cows and five bulls. Cattle are life. And now they are eating them, or they are being stolen and shot. If someone took away your home, your income, and set you on the street in your pajamas, you would still live in a place that was functioning and solid, in a society that doesn't even count hunger as a measure of poverty. Without their cattle, the Dinka have less than nothing. If these young people want to be homeless together, it has to be on tick, on the promise of future calves.
A gaggle of girls walk beside me, straight backs and high breasts. They move with an easy, undulating rhythm. Little plumes of dust are kicked up by their feet. They giggle and whisper to each other, as cool and direct and blushingly unnerving as any group of pretty teenagers. They flirt. Nobody prepares you for flirting in a famine. While there is life, there is still living. One strides close and does a rolling lumpen imitation of my gait, and her friends bridle and shimmy in peals of laughter. With long, strong fingers, she touches her heart and then her lips and gives me a glowing white smile.
On the plain the Dinka line up in a milling band. They stretch across the horizon like a David Lean panning shot. Facing them two hundred yards away are the neat files of white sacks containing split peas and maize, each attended by companies of askari. Standing on a pile of food, a fat WFP officer with a plastic water bottle over his shoulder shouts orders and waves a fly whisk: a martinet that is depressingly familiar all over Africa. Small boys, self-important with red rags of office tied to their wrists, dart back and forth, prodding women with cattle sticks. This is the lottery of life, the rough end of charity. Not everyone will be fed. And considering its mortal importance, the choosing is remarkably good-natured. The sacks are broken open and each divided between nine women: they fill their calabashes with pulses and tear up the plastic to make bundles to put on their heads.
Each of these little groups comes from one village -- the women are responsible for the food but the headman chooses who will be fed. There is a lot of shouting and gesticulating, and the process is meticulous and desperately slow. But the Dinka have nowhere else to be. They stand in the hot sun and wait: it is not so much stoical or fatalistic as a worn-out realism. Each of the women carries a small brush made from sticks to sweep the spilled grain. They are loaded with twenty-eight days' subsistence and, balanced as finely as tightrope walkers, they slowly move off into the bush, their small, naked children trailing behind. They will return to their villages if they still exist, or find a spot under a tree. An aid worker says, "I wonder what those women have to do to be chosen and how much of that food goes to the army." As the interminable business grinds on, I lie in the shadow of a termite hill with a group of men. They smile and nod. I hand out the last of my cigarettes, we sit for ten companionable minutes, watching. The choosing and rejecting, the spilling of seed. There is a light touch on my shoulder, and a man about my age in a shirt that is just dirty ribbons, with bony elbows and ribs like the ruts in a baked road, leans forward and smiles. The taut parchment skin wrinkles over his cheeks, his eyes are the color of weak tea. He holds out the little gourd that is slung round his neck: would I like a drink? It is a small epiphany of sorts, to be offered hospitality from the very back of the earth's queue. Think of all the starving in Africa. It was as if the Good Samaritan had been offered succor by the man overtaken by thieves, and it was the most gravely humbling gesture. I was glad to be wearing sunglasses. I didn't trust myself to speak, just shook my head and dragged deeply on my cigarette.
Biblical analogies come easily here, the exodus of the Dinka, the flight across the desert, the ancient heroic look of them, a chosen people. Every so often a flash of metal spikes the eye: invariably it is a silver cross. Unbidden, I remember the Sermon on the Mount. I never thought I would actually see it played out quite so literally or with such grace. "You are the salt of the earth." "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."
I was dreading dinner: how do you eat in a promise of famine? Actually, it is not difficult; not to eat would be a silly act of self-mortification. And we are hungry. The relief camp was a collection of little tents set behind a low palisade of thorn bushes; on the other side the starving stood and watched as we shared out the contents of bags: trail mix, repellent muesli bars, apples, chicken legs, packed lunch from the Norfolk Hotel with weirdly surreal lamb sandwiches cut into triangles that Paul said reminded him of childhood. There was a bit of rather good boiled goat. ITN provided a bottle of whiskey and told with glee of the American network crew who had set up a grand tent with an awning and a collapsible dining table, napery and candles, and toasted each other with claret while the Dinka stood in a silent circle. It was the French nurse's birthday: she slumped exhausted into a chair and ate a boiled egg. When next you hear someone talk sneeringly about the high moral ground, remember the field workers of MSF, the only charity to have staff actually living in Bahr al Ghazal. These are volunteers who work because MSF pays the lowest subsistence salaries of any international charity, not despite it. Who have to be rotated every two months because no one can bear it for longer but who sometimes have to because they can't be pulled out. Who have to sleep in their shoes with a water bottle because their camp may be overrun. Because if you do find yourself living at the very pinnacle of the high moral ground, there are any number of people who would slit your throat for a moral and a watch.
We turn in. I haven't brought a tent so I lie under a mosquito net. Sleeping out in the African bush under a sickle moon is one of the most awe-inspiring experiences -- as long as you have a choice, of course. Men have lain here in the hot wind looking at the stars for as long as there have been men. This is where we come from, this swathe of thin earth, brittle grass and thorn stretching from the Rift Valley to the filigree marshes at the source of the Blue Nile. This is our ancestral home. The sour-sweet smoky body smell of Africa drifts on the breeze. The cooking fires of the Dinka flicker like earthed comets. There is a sound of crickets and a distant drumming and the exhausted wailing of hungry children. And the temazepam-induced snores of an ITN reporter. Just as I was dozing off I turned over and came face to face with a wild beast. I made a noise not unlike a stuck heifer. The bone-questing dog and I were frightened in equal measure. Paul in the fastness of his tent laughed so hard his film rattled.
Southern Sudan is the line in the sand where Arab and black Africa meet, but it is also the place where the First World, north world, blue-eyed haves meet the Third World, south world, dark-eyed have-nots. It is the front line, the raw edge of our conscience. I had expected to feel guilty, angry, horrified and depressed, and in varying degrees, I am. But the abiding sense is one of dignity. The dignity of a Dinka standing patiently in the sun and the workers who risk so much to help them. It is not that suffering is dignified, it is that here the fat and panoply of life is stripped away to reveal a fragile but resilient shared humanity. When I got home, I tried to explain to my young daughter where I had been and what I had seen. "Are they dying?" she asked. Yes. "Where do they bury them?" Where do we bury them? In Monday's rubbish, in the commercial break, in the turned page and the changed subject in Sunday lunch and under the prune stones on the side of your plate.
In the gray light before dawn I woke and saw a line of women pass silently in single file with calabashes on their heads going to collect water from the muddy hollows of a drying river. They looked like so many ghosts. As the sun rose it caught the shadows of a thousand bare footprints in the dust. A mother was washing her son. He stood in an enamel basin, his arms raised, and gently, with a tin cup and infinite tenderness, she sloughed the dust off him. In the golden light, he glowed and shone like the child in an icon.
Copyright © 2002, 2005 by A. A. Gill
Meet the Author
A.A. Gill was born in Edinburgh, but has lived in London for most of his life. He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >
Its the worst device ever
Im am unsure. Could someone plz let me know. Thank you
This book is very disappionting,a mishmash of rehashed old columns,thinly written ,with a smug self consciousness. I'm not sure why the author thinks we would want to re-read a pile of stuff which wasn't funny or even interesting in the first place. Bought for me as a gift ,I am in the unfortunate position of not knowing which shop to return it to!