During the six long days that Ever Given clogged the Suez Canal, it is worth noting the sphinx calm that Britain maintained on possible global delays in grocery supplies. “Coffee shortage ahead!” the experts warned. But we are unfazed. “Expect supply chain problems with toilet paper!” the tipsters said. “Pffft … again?” We sigh as we gaze wistfully at the ultra-padded three-layer Hadrian de Cushelle wall that we had accumulated in the last crisis.
On CNN, an analyst said, “Every day, seven billion pounds of food products and packaging get caught in the queue,” and it seemed there was no limit to the potential shortage shoppers could feel. I looked out the window and stretched my ear to hear the sound of footsteps. In normal times, before a pandemic, one might have expected panic to set in, stampedes heading down the pasta and rice aisles, or at least an offense to public order at a Costco. But no: Britain should not accelerate.
Perhaps one good thing that has come out of the last horrible 12 months – and I am aware that I am understanding here – is that many of us have shifted our boundaries on the concept of “need”. Some of us are genuinely needy and vulnerable, but most of us will get out of the way. If we can’t get Nescafe Gold Blend and we have to support Mellow Birds instead, that’s fine. We will live.
Last March, when the news got terrifying, many of us thought that simply building a fortress of Be-Ro self-nurturing and canned chickpeas would give us a kind of life in perpetuity. Those of us with cars, strong arms, and credit cards were the luckiest. None of us could be sure what we needed to survive a terrifying and virulent assassin bug, but at the time it felt like Hartley’s jelly cubes and cans of Heinz haunted house. Oh and yeast: every 7g packet of Allinson’s Easy Baking Yeast in Christendom, kept in store cupboards, along with 5kg catering bags of Tate & Lyle sugar and enough puffs of sugar to make the honey monster bilious.
Full closets felt like a form of protection. I bought dry grits and sago, despite finding both torture in childhood. I bought canned pineapple slices for the vitamin C and bags of split lentils that fell off my higher shelves, half flustering every time I reached for the jam. With these abundant supplies, I had become semi-invincible. The world order may fall apart and anarchy will prevail, but at least I had Tiptree seedless raspberry jam to last until Christmas. If things got really bad, I thought, I could make rock buns. After all, it had a lot of nuts.
However, it turns out, full shelves haven’t saved us from the Covid blues. Thousands of us have died and millions have lost our mothers, our fathers, our colleagues, friends and neighbors. All those hectic and abrupt purchases were really just a commuting activity. The virus doesn’t care if its victims have a chest freezer full of fish sticks or a stall under the stairs stocked with beans. It doesn’t matter if you have everything you need to make fairy cakes. It kills people with bulky cabinets and people with almost no food, and robs others of smell, taste and appetite.
If I’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that whatever stockpiling I’ve made was just a fig leaf about selfishness and existential panic, and that my needs to survive are actually pathetically minuscule. I need some daily carbohydrates, some fruit, some Earl Gray, maybe a glass of wine. I need the occasional Hobnob cookie and my friends chitchatting on WhatsApp. I need the sound of a loved one’s voice on the phone asking, “Are you okay?” And a round of frozen bread toast for a lunch that’s actually breakfast. The rest is just silly. It turns out that I am easier to maintain than the average bonsai.
A year later, as we approach freedom, I often think of vacant rooms, pantries, and cupboards across Britain still crammed with flour, rice, yeast, cooking chocolate, tallow, and muffin mix; all those cans of processed peas and cartons of UHT that we bought to prevent a pandemic. Perhaps now is the time for some of us to release those items and deliver them to those who really need them. I began to shyly take things to the supermarket to leave them in the boxes at the food bank. Join me! Take back control of your closets! You have nothing to lose but your fears and your mountain of pasta bow tie.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism