During the six long days in which the Ever Given clogged the Suez canal, it is worth noting the sphinx-like calm that Britain retained over potential global backlogs of grocery supplies. “Coffee shortages ahead!” the experts warned. But we did not flinch. “Expect supply chain issues with toilet paper!” forecasters said. “Pffft … again?” we sighed while glancing wistfully at the Hadrian’s wall of Cushelle ultra-quilted three-ply we’d amassed in the last crisis.
On CNN, one analyst said, “Seven billion pounds of goods and food packaging are being ensnared in the tailback each day”, and it seemed as if there was no limit to the potential scarcity that shoppers might feel. I looked out of the window, craning my ear for the rumble of footsteps. In normal, pre-pandemic times, one might have expected panic to set in, for stampedes to head towards the pasta and rice aisles, or at the very least one public order offence in a Costco. But, no: Britain was not to be revved up.
Perhaps one good thing that has come out of the past horrible 12 months – and I’m aware I’m grasping here – is that many of us have shifted our boundaries about the concept of “need”. Some of us are genuinely needy and vulnerable, but most of us will muddle through. If we can’t get hold of Nescafe Gold Blend and have to endure Mellow Birds instead, it will be OK. We will live.
Last March, as the news grew frightening, many of us thought that simply building a fortress of Be-Ro self-raising and tinned chickpeas would grant us a type 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, virulent killer bug but, in that moment, it felt as if it might be Hartley’s jelly cubes and tins of Heinz Haunted House. Oh, and yeast – every 7g packet of Allinson’s easy bake yeast in Christendom, squirrelled away in store cupboards, along with 5kg catering bags of Tate & Lyle sugar and enough sugar puffs to make the Honey Monster bilious.
Full cupboards felt like some form of protection. I bought dried semolina and sago, despite finding both a torture in childhood. I bought tinned pineapple slices for vitamin C and bags of split lentils that fell from my highest shelves, half-stunning me each time I looked for the marmalade. With these abundant supplies, I had made myself semi-invincible. World order may crumble and anarchy prevail, but at least I had Tiptree seedless raspberry jam to last me until Christmas. If things got really bad, I thought, I might make rock buns. After all, I had plenty of dried fruit in.
As it transpires, though, full shelves haven’t saved us from the sadness of Covid. Thousands of us have died and millions of us have lost our mums, our dads, our colleagues, friends and neighbours. All that frantic, sharp-elbowed shopping was really only ever a displacement activity. The virus doesn’t care if its victims have got a chest freezer brimming with fish fingers or an under-stairs cubbyhole stocked up with kidney beans. It doesn’t care if you have everything in to make fairy cakes. It kills people with bulging cupboards and people with hardly any food at all, and it robs others of smell, taste and appetite.
If I have learned anything from the pandemic, it is that any stockpiling I have done was just a fig leaf over selfishness and existential panic, and that my needs to survive are actually pathetically minuscule. I need some daily carbs, some fruit, some earl grey, perhaps the odd glass of wine. I need the occasional Hobnob biscuit and my friends chatting nonsense on WhatsApp. I need the sound of a loved one’s voice on the phone asking, “You OK?”, and a round of freezer-bread toast for a lunch that is actually breakfast. The rest is all just faff. I’m easier to maintain, it turns out, than the average bonsai.
One year on, as we edge towards freedom, I often think of the spare rooms, larders and cupboards across Britain still crammed with flour, rice, yeast, cooking chocolate, suet and scone mix; all those tins of processed peas and cartons of UHT that we bought to stave off a pandemic. Perhaps right now is the time for some of us to set those items free, and give them to those who actually need them. I’ve begun sheepishly taking stuff back to the supermarket to leave in the food bank boxes. Join me! Take back control of your cupboards! You have nothing to lose but your fears and your pasta bow-tie mountain.