View from Vitalia: Running out of thyme

Temporarily empty supermarket shelves can teach us a lesson in political economy

“Toilet paper is the new cryptocurrency” - BBC Radio 4 presenter Evan Davis, 'PM', Wednesday 18 March, 2020.

Bless our local ‘family butcher’, whose shop – until this morning - I've avoided for years after once walking past it with my friend the American writer Bill Bryson, who, having looked up at the utterly un-American (perhaps even anti-American) ‘Family Butcher’ sign, remarked: “Every time I see such a sign in England, I'm tempted to pop inside and ask how much they would charge to do mine...”

Yet this morning I had no choice. At least I thought so. Having despaired of finding ordinary chickens’ eggs anywhere in our town in the midst of the growing coronavirus pandemic, I thought I’d ask the butcher, who would normally have some fancy eggs – like ducks’ and quails’ – displayed outside his shop, probably to attract customers. Sticking strictly to the ‘minimal contact’ rule that I've adopted since my recent period of self-isolation, I shouted from the shop’s threshold (without entering) to ask whether they had any chickens’ eggs left. The butcher winked, instead of answering, and pointed under the counter.

The gesture and the whole situation were so familiar to me from my Soviet childhood and youth that for a fleeting moment I all but lost track of time and space and yelled out in Russian: “Idyot!”

No, I wasn’t trying to insult the butcher’s intelligence, but simply to say, “It’s a deal!” in colloquial Russian. Only then did it dawn on me that I had been miraculously transported forty-odd years back in time to pre-perestroika Moscow. Psychologically, if not geographically.

Looking furtively right and left like a troubled turkey, the butcher ferreted from under the counter a large plastic tray with 30 eggs, carried it out of the shop and asked me for a tenner, which at that point I – bursting with the perverse pride of a hardened Soviet breadwinner who had managed to beat the system and provide for his family no matter what - was more than happy to cough up.

Having carefully placed the fragile tray at the bottom of my so far empty shopping bag, I jauntily trotted back home in anticipation of a huge fluffy omelette and my wife’s astonishment and unadulterated joy at the sight of the coveted eggs. “She'll probably call me ‘my hero’,” I mused with a blissful smile on my face.

About fifty metres into my triumphant walk, the smile vanished as I spotted a neat stack of cardboard boxes with free-range chickens’ eggs on sale from a street stall for £1.50 for ten! And no queue!

I realised that I had just overpaid more than a fiver for 30 eggs! Funnily enough, that didn’t affect my provider’s pride. My wife, after all, didn't need to know all the details...

I'm not sure about you, but I now find it hard switching on the radio of a morning, which I have been doing automatically, while still half asleep, for as long as I can remember. What exactly am I afraid of? Of being brutally teleported from the world of my (mostly) sweet dreams to a reality so gruesome and scary that it borders on being unreal? As if being stuck on page 25 of an apocalyptic horror novel, or sucked  into the first 20 minutes of a familiar disaster movie, the title of which escapes you. Is it 'I am Legend', 'War of the Worlds' or  'Terminator 16'? Or maybe a concoction of all three – 'A Terminal War Legend', or something like that?

Can it be that what has come back to us in the shapeless form of a tiny, almost non-existential, virus is but a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, the scenario we had all been frightened of, but also secretly, maybe even subconsciously, craved as a source of adrenaline to diversify an existence that has become increasingly boring and uneventful – despite, or maybe because of, all our electronic toys? 

The closest proximity to the events now unveiling in reality was reached by the Russian TV serial ‘Epidemiya’ (‘Epidemic’) which I watched only a couple of months ago. A virus with similar symptoms initially looking like a cold; life grinding to a complete stop; people escaping to Siberian forests (where else, for it is Russia after all?), and the rulers, who – unable and unwilling to treat all the sick – start simply shooting them dead. “No person – no problem,” as an old Russian underworld saying goes.

I didn’t manage to watch this serial to the end for one simple reason: after episode 8 it was banned by a Russian government who don’t like to be portrayed as murderers, even if fictional. In vain, did the ingenious director hastily add a scene to episode 9 in which – amid all the  chaos –  multiple WWII-type loudspeakers in the forest keep blaring, blaming the shooting on some “unidentified foreign armed units,” that have secretly infiltrated Russia (for sure, foreigners are always to blame). It was too late. Or not convincing enough. Or both. The serial was shelved.

Now we should all shelve (by which I mean put on our bookshelves) a prophetic thriller  by the famous American writer Dean Koontz, 'The Eyes of Darkness'. In this fluently written horror novel, first published in 1981, Chinese scientists develop a new virus which they want to use as a biological weapon. Let’s read on: “They call the stuff Wuhan-400 because it was developed at their RDNA labs outside the city of Wuhan, and it was the four-hundredth viable strain of man-made microorganisms created in that research centre... Wuhan-400 is a perfect weapon. It afflicts only human beings. No other living creature can carry it. And like syphilis, Wuhan-400 can’t survive outside a living human body... when the host expires, the Wuhan-400 within him perishes a short while later, as soon as the temperature of the corpse drops below eighty-six degrees Fahrenheit...”

Well, ignoring some artistic licence (there’s not a single grain of proof that the Covid-19 coronavirus was developed by China or any other nation as a weapon), it all sounds amazingly precise. And why Wuhan – not Shanghai, Tianjin or, say, Guangzhou?

Whatever it is, ‘Wuhan-400’ is now here. And looks like it may be here to stay.

You know under which circumstances I had that ticklish ‘I’ve been here before’ sensation of déjà vu recently?

It was while staring in disbelief at the scene I thought I would never feast my eyes upon in the West – an entirely empty meat and poultry section in my local Sainsbury’s. To me, however, it was not just a set of empty shelves, but a kind of time-machine that immediately threw me back 35 years.

I will never forget the footwear shop near Babushkinskaya Metro Station in wintery mid-1980s Moscow. I think it was 1987 or 1988, when practically nothing at all was on sale, not even milk or vodka. And no virus or bacteria were at fault, unless of course you want to metaphorise communist central planning as a bacterium and its main enforcer – at that time no one else but Gorbachev – as ‘Gorbavirus’? We had a naive hope to buy, or at least to see – some shoes, but on all the shelves in that rather spacious ‘supermarket’ only one item was on display -  Torricellian vacuum! Or the Buddhist Sunayata (emptiness), if you prefer.

Correction. In the dusty dark corner of one of the shelves there stood the largest SINGLE woman’s rubber wellington boot, or ‘sapog’, that I've ever seen. The size of  it in modern UK measurements was probably close to 22, or 60 on the continental European scale.

I was finding it hard even then to visualise the unfortunate one-legged giantess who would have been tempted by that peculiar piece of footwear. I remember thinking of  Uljana Semjonova, a Soviet women’s national team basketball player who was at least seven feet tall and wore size 21/58 shoes, the largest shoes ever in the history of women’s basketball. (I remember seeing her on TV gently LOWERING the ball into the basket during a game. But, thankfully, she was not an invalid and therefore did not need just the one lonely  ‘sapog’ which, for some obscure reason, made that Moscow shoe shop appear even emptier than it was!

And here’s my freshly discovered theory of emptiness, which found its further confirmation in the same supermarket’s entirely cleared ("as if licked clean by a cow's tongue," as we said in Russia) poultry section, with just one squashed egg stuck to a slimy empty shelf: “Nothing looks as empty as an empty space or a surface with just one useless object – be it a giant high boot or a squashed egg – inside or on top of it”!

Armed with that (rather useless, I have to admit) definition of emptiness, let us consider the technology of another purely communist (or socialist if you wish) phenomenon – panic buying of such essentials as, say, toilet paper. For reasons which are easy to explain, that particular commodity was always in short supply in the USSR, and the sight of men (providers, like myself) proudly marching along Moscow streets wrapped up from head to toe in toilet-paper-roll garlands, which made them resemble the no-nonsense Bolshevik commissars, belted with very high-calibre machine-gun cartridges (as portrayed in the hooray-patriotic Soviet movies), was as common as that of a drunk resting in a puddle. By making their citizens spend half of their lives in search of a civilised way of wiping their bottoms, the powers that be were able to kill two sparrows with one stone (or one toilet-paper roll): to humiliate them (citizens, not sparrows) and to distract them from much more essential issues, like, say, why they had to live like that in the first place.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and with time we all became  very good at finding solutions to everyday problems. I remember carrying bagfuls of condoms, readily available in Moscow (made by the Bakovskiy rubber products factory, they were thick as woollen socks and full of holes, like the same socks after 10 years of exploitation – the government’s ingenious way of coping with the persistent demographical crisis, but still better than nothing) to a friend in Leningrad, who, in his turn, would bring to Moscow crates of ‘Miatnaya’ (‘Minty’) toothpaste, which was dark grey and tasted of rubber (probably the same the condoms were made of).

That was probably what Evan Davis had in mind when calling toilet paper “the new crypto-currency”.

Have you ever thought why neither toothpaste nor condoms are ever in short supply the West – just like most other consumer goods (apart from during a pandemic, of course)? The answer is simple: the greedy Western capitalists have only one interest: to stuff their pockets with money. They fall over backwards NOT to distract the consumers, i.e. ourselves, with shortages and their goodies’ poor quality. Therefore – epidemic or not – the temporarily erratic supplies, as well as some unexpected manufacturing hiccups, are bound to come to a stop pretty soon!

I've brought you the above crash course in primitive political economy with the aim of showing that panic is unnecessary. My own egg-buying experience, caused by a temporary (or so I hope) amnesia of my Soviet past, when for a fleeting moment I lost faith in the creative and technological might of capitalism and was immediately punished for it financially, can serve as a good real-life illustration.

And really, the shortages are not one-tenth as bad as in the USSR. For example, the other day I felt like cooking my signature Russian dish – borscht, a thick beetroot soup, with medically proven mood-enhancing qualities, and then discovered that I had run out of one essential herbal ingredient – thyme.

“I think I’ve run out of thyme!” I announced to my wife sombrely from the kitchen. She dashed in immediately thinking I was having a heart attack.

Luckily, our local Morrisons had plenty of thyme in stock.

So, please, no panic and no panic buying. Let’s follow the Buddha’s advice and enjoy the sheer beauty of emptiness (Sunyata) – in this case of supermarket shelves - in the knowledge that this emptiness is both temporary and meaningless. It is up to ourselves to fill it up with reason.

As the Buddha himself once said: “What will happen - will happen,  we cannot change it. But we can change the way we react to it!”        

In short, let’s keep calm and carry on, shall we? And then we’ll never run out of thyme.

And out of time too…

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