'The truth is that no-one knows how it started. There are the stories: some people talk about the bookshop in Leicestershire that found itself unable to get a shipment of Bibles, or about the church in London where the vicar became so tongue-tied during the prayers that the service had to be abandoned. But the nature of the episode which became known as the Famine was that it crept up on us. As a country, we only really noticed it when it had us firmly in its grip. There are those who would argue that, if we had noticed it sooner, it would never have come to the point it did.
The Bibles were the most visible sign that something was wrong. For decades England had been awash with unwanted Bibles. They gathered dust in every second-hand bookshop, and lots of houses had one mouldering on a top shelf somewhere. But now it seemed that they had all crumbled to illegibility, or been turned to mush by leaks or floods. Bookshops couldn’t get hold of them. Churches found that their copies had been eaten by mice. When publishers tried to print new ones, they came off the presses as gibberish. When they tried to import them, they found that the shipping crates leaked, or that they arrived safely but turned out to be entirely in Korean, or – in one particularly ominous case – that every page was blank. People tried to download the text from the Internet, but the files were corrupted and broadband connections kept crashing. There was a high-profile attempt by a consortium of scholars to try to reassemble the Bible from the quotations that could be found in other books, but all that emerged was a disconnected string of nonsense. Some people started arguing that the Bible had never really existed at all. The very idea of a book which contained the Word of God was obviously a metaphor, and it was only the crass literalism of our own age which would imagine that such a thing had ever physically existed.
The prayers weren’t so obvious. It started in those churches where the ministers prayed extempore; they found themselves increasingly unable to do it. Where they followed an order of service, it was easier, but soon enough those churches began to struggle too. And what they experienced in public was, it soon became clear, widely shared in private. People could still read the words off a page in front of them, of course, but the difficulty in concentrating on doing so became so intense that it was only by sheer brute force that people could hack their way through the words of a prayer. There was no hope of actually praying it. Churches began to be boarded up. One of them provided the iconic image of the whole affair: the church in Manchester where someone spray-painted across the boards ‘CLOSED BY ORDER OF THE HOLY SPIRIT’. Of course, by then no-one knew who or what the Holy Spirit was any more. But it was around that time that people stopped calling it the Famine and started calling it the Blockade.
There was considerable interest in what it would mean for us as a nation. Some commentators argued that it would be a liberation, and we’d be free to celebrate our true nature; yet the people inexplicably failed to party in the streets as they were supposed to. Other columnists were lugubriously apocalyptic, and warned of a country on the verge of slipping into feral chaos. But the reality was different. Rather than moral anarchy, we were overtaken by a certain listlessness and withdrawal. People stopped speaking to each other. They spent more time indoors, alone. TV viewing figures crept up. You began to see people in the open simply sitting and gazing into the distance. Some gathered around the boarded-up churches: not doing anything, merely being there for a little while and then moving on. There was a drifting lassitude, which lulled and numbed us even as it tightened its grip.
But if no-one knows how it started, everyone knows how it ended. The story bears retelling. A raw, cold winter’s evening in a village in the Northumberland hills. A young couple driving home: sitting in their car in silence, as had become the way. And they passed an elderly woman waiting at a bus stop. The two of them looked at one another: both knew that the last bus had gone. They stopped, reversed, offered her a lift. She accepted enthusiastically. Indeed, as soon as she was in the car, they noticed the vibrancy and sense of life about her; it was unfamiliar. She noticed them, too: the nothingness which filled the car. What was the matter, she asked?
‘Are you the only person in England who doesn’t know what’s been happening?’ they replied, and told her a little of what had been going on. It was evidently new to her, but she did not seem taken aback by it.
‘Can you be surprised?’ she asked. ‘That if we scorn God’s gifts and take them for granted for so many years, finally he should choose to take them away?’
Then they reached their home village. Their passenger said she lived only a little further on and would be happy to walk. But they pressed her to come in and have something hot to eat first, and she agreed. And as they warmed up some soup and bread, they continued talking.
‘So’, they asked, ‘why this emptiness? It’s not as if we prayed before.’
She fished in her handbag, pulled out a small, battered book, and found a page in it. ‘When he said he was the bread of life, do you think he was joking?’
Both of her hosts stood still and stared. ‘Is that …,’ the wife asked, ‘… is that a Bible?’
They served up the food in silence. Eventually, the husband asked, ‘So what can we do?’
Their guest tapped the book again. ‘We can do as he said.’ And she picked up a bread roll: ‘We can break this, and eat it, in remembrance of him.’
And their eyes were opened; and they never saw her again. But as it turned out, they did not need to.'