I must be showing my age – and not just in the grey hairs, slowing legs that lead me to clog a few more people on the football field and inability to remember the location of my phone and keys for more than five seconds.
I’ve noticed quite a few reviewers of Apocalypse Cow were disturbed by one particular scene, in which the young child of a politician is killed live on television during a publicity stunt aimed at keeping consumers eating meat as the zombie virus spreads through Britain’s livestock. While it may seem gratuitous to readers who are not as advanced in years as I am, it is there for a very specific reason, one which stretches back to the height of the Mad Cow crisis in the UK.
In 1990, as Brits got themselves into a tizzy over the likelihood of contracting BSE (in its human form CJD) from eating infected beef, John Selwyn Gummer, at the time Agriculture Minister for the Tory government, staged a press event during which he tried to feed his four-year-old daughter Cordelia a burger. Only days before a cat had died of a BSE-like disease, showing that the virus could mutate, and the government had banned humans from eating beef offal.
His intention was to ease public fears over British beef. Instead, he ended up being vilified for his PR stunt, although he continued to defend his actions years later and his daughter did not contract CJD. In retrospect, the chances of her contracting any illness were very slim, and to be fair he did eat the burger himself, but he essentially took a chance with her daughter’s welfare in the hope of gaining political capital. Children have long been tools in the political game, wheeled out regularly to fluff up a politician's family credentials and gain votes, but that was taking it a bit too far. Gummer got away with it. The politician in my book doesn't.
Anyway, this is the problem with satire. If readers don’t actually know of the event you are parodying – and that is obviously a danger if you are drawing on something that happened 22 years ago – then they are going to miss the whole point of the scene and, as appears to be the case with my book, suspect the author is just a sadistic swine who enjoys bumping off children on page.
Of course, The Hunger Games is full of children being slaughtered in various nasty ways, and most people are fine with that because they understand there is some message behind it. Perhaps I should go down the Monty Python route in future, and flash a large ‘SATIRE’ sign across the page with a footnote explaining what I’m doing. Or maybe not.
I have also half-written a blog post on depictions of graphic violence in the media, books and films, as it has been something I have thinking about a lot given both the nature of my book and long history of working in journalism dealing with rather nasty conflicts. I need to chew on it a bit longer, but will post it soon. The basic gist of it is looking at why we don't like to see pictures of dead bodies, and why people are offended by descriptions of death in novels - even though novelists explore and describe everything else in great detail.