A story of our times: the great toilet paper panic

Dateline: Tuesday 17 March, 2020. Scene: Mrs P and I are walking across the car park towards our local supermarket, hoping to buy flour. Fat chance, but you have to try, don’t you? A woman emerges from the store and approaches us, beaming from ear to ear. She has a spring in her step, and looks as triumphant as a pauper who’s just won a fortune on the lottery. The cause of her joy? She’s carrying a twelve-pack of toilet rolls under each arm, clutching them to her ample body lovingly, like a B-list actress who’s just won an unexpected Oscar.

person holding white toilet paper roll

PHOTO CREDIT: Elly Johnson via Unsplash

Fast forward a few days. I phone Pat and Dave in London, and ask them how they’re coping as the COVID-19 crisis deepens. Dave replies, saying that a couple of days earlier at his local retail warehouse he’d been interrogated by the guy on the checkout. “Haven’t you forgotten something, mate?” was the mischievous question.

“No,” replies Dave, glancing down at a few random packs meat, fish and groceries in his shopping trolley, “I don’t think so.”

“What about toilet rolls then?” queries Checkout Man, giving Dave a conspiratorial wink.

Dave lifts his head, and looks around him. The warehouse is rammed with shoppers, and all the other buggers have filled their trolleys with toilet rolls. The word’s out: this place has had a delivery, and is creaking at the seams with toilet paper. But not for much longer, obviously.

person holding white tissue paper roll

PHOTO CREDIT: Jasmin Sessler via Unsplash

Dave goes on to say that the next day, just 24 hours before the Prime Minister appeared on television and warned us all to behave responsibly or face the consequences, he and Pat attended a skittles evening at their local hostelry. He explains that they got knocked out early, but hung around until the end of the competition. The winner’s “mystery prize,” a bemused Dave observes, turned out to be a toilet roll tied up in a pretty silk bow.

So my question is this: how the hell have we managed to get here? It’s clear that, in the midst of a grave international crisis, vast numbers of our fellow citizens can think of nothing better to do than hoard toilet paper. Why, for god’s sake, are we so obsessed with the stuff?

*

Toilet paper is something we take for granted. Can’t imagine life without it, can we? But countless generations of our ancestors got by quite happily, doing the necessary with whatever else was to hand – shards of clay, a sponge on a stick, leaves, fur, stones, moss. Even corn cobs. The list goes on and on.

And as society developed, it wasn’t just natural alternatives that people turned to. When newspapers got going and started peddling fake news, their lies and deceits were given the treatment they deserved in privies throughout the developing world.

Yes, it’s true. You name it, we humans have used it in pursuit of enhanced personal hygiene. The 16th century French writer Rabelais even proposed “the neck of a goose, that is well downed, if you hold her head betwixt your legs.” Adds a whole new level of meaning to the practice of “goosing” someone, doesn’t it?

white printer paper on brown wooden window

PHOTO CREDIT: Allie Smith via Unsplash

China is the source of all sorts of things. Pandas, for one. And COVID-19, of course. Paper is another of that nation’s gifts to the world. And given that they invented paper in the 2nd century BCE, it’s no surprise that the Chinese were also the first to come up with toilet paper.

By the 6th century CE the use of paper for the most intimate acts of bodily cleansing is said to have been common in China, but this wasn’t toilet paper as we know it. That first came along in 1391, made for the use of the Chinese Emperor, each sheet being perfumed to mask the noxious scents that inevitably result from consuming too many mung beans.

But it was a forward-thinking businessman in the Land of the Free who finally made toilet paper available to the masses. The game-changer was New Yorker Joseph Gayetty, who, in 1857, started selling commercially packaged toilet paper. He marketed his single, flat sheets – infused with aloe, and sold in packs of 500 – as “The greatest necessity of the age!” Promoted as a medical treatment to cure haemorrhoids, Gayetty is probably the first entrepreneur in history intent on making piles of money from piles.

Inexplicably, in perhaps the worst marketing initiative ever perpetrated by a profit-crazed American businessman, he insisted that his name be printed on every sheet of his “Medicated Paper.” Now, I know that many spirited entrepreneurs like to get down and dirty, but surely this was a step too far? Gayetty had hoped to be flushed with success, but his innovation turned out to be a commercial disaster. He and his product hit rock bottom.

However, Americans are a determined bunch, rarely shy when profits are at stake, and it should therefore come as no surprise that Gayetty’s vision was reworked into something that would sell. So it was that, in 1883, one Seth Wheeler of Albany patented rolled and perforated toilet paper. And the rest, as they say, is history.

white and red wooden counter

PHOTO CREDIT: John Cameron via Unsplash

Or is it? While some historians (Americans, probably) subscribe to the sequence of events described above, others (British, I imagine) maintain that it was a Brit who invented the toilet roll. According to this revisionist interpretation of the history of bathroom stationery it was Walter J Alcock who, in 1879, first created toilet paper on a roll as an alternative to the standard flat sheets.

But to avoid falling out with our American cousins – we Brits need all the international friends we can get right now – let’s be charitable and say that toilet rolls were invented simultaneously in the USA and the UK around 1880. Standards of personal hygiene on both sides of the Pond undoubtedly improved as a result, although the quality of the experience must have been very different back in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

As proof of this assertion, it was as late as 1935 that a claim was made by the British Northern Tissue company to have manufactured the first splinter-free toilet tissue. The clear implication is that, before then, using the stuff was fraught with hazards that we would all wish to avoid. Is this why photographs from the early part of the 20th century generally show their subjects wearing pained expressions?

And it was not until 1942 that the first two-ply toilet paper came off the production line, courtesy of St. Andrew’s Paper Mill in England.

Yes, that’s right. Some of my countrymen took time off from defeating Hitler to do something they evidently perceived to be even more important: to immeasurably improve – and soften – the British sanitary experience. Given this extraordinary demonstration of societal priorities perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that today, while the COVID-19 crisis rages all around them, so many people in the UK and across much of the wider world are fixated on the supply of toilet rolls.

white tissue roll on tissue holder

PHOTO CREDIT: Jasmin Sessler via Unsplash

Toilet paper is clearly useful, making an awkward but necessary human activity more comfortable. But also, and perhaps more importantly, it’s a symbol of civilisation, an indication of how far we’ve progressed from our cave-dwelling days.

If you believe some of the stories circulating in the media and on the Internet, our very civilisation is currently under threat from COVID-19. Given this context, is it really so astonishing that millions of ordinary folk are desperate to ensure uninterrupted access to a product that is both a symbol and an embodiment of the benefits civilisation confers on its citizens?

And also, as any half-decent farmer will confirm, there just ain’t enough corn cobs to go round.

Getting thrashed at Scrabble again

Nearly two years have passed since I retired from work. People still ask me how I’m coping, and the truthful answer is that it’s going rather well. Actually, you can’t beat it: I have a good pension and a fairly modest lifestyle, so fortunately money’s not an issue. Yes, I do miss the company of some of the people I used to work with, and also the sense of purpose that comes with a responsible job. You know what I mean, those feel-good moments that result from being needed. But life moves on, and so have I.

No, the main problem with retiring is that I no longer have a bloody clue what day of the week it is.

You see, work imposed a structure on my life, mapping out my week in a meaningful way. And when it was gone it felt like I was at sea without a compass.

Before I retired my week was shaped by routines. To start with there was the framework of five days on – Monday to Friday – followed by two days off. The regular milestones of the working week added depth to the pattern: my boss Teflon Sal’s management team meetings on Tuesdays, my own team meetings every Wednesday, the Friday afternoon all-user email in which the great and the good desperately tried to convince the poor bloody infantry how well things were going while simultaneously demanding that we cut the crap and do better.

All of these things, and many more besides, were anchor points during the week. Routines keep me grounded, helping me make sense of the world around me. And when I retired these anchor points were ripped away overnight, leaving me drifting aimlessly.

But nature abhors a vacuum, and so it’s no surprise that new patterns have emerged. One of these is that on Sunday afternoons Mrs P and I play Scrabble, while keeping a close eye on the garden for a visit from Milky Bar and listening to a Newfoundland folk music radio show on the Internet.

Scrabble helps keep the brain active, which is a good thing now that I no longer have reports to write, managers to please or politicians to persuade. I should be good at it too: words have always been my currency of choice, my friends in adversity. I love them for their power and their beauty, which, I suppose, is one of the reasons for writing this blog.

All that counts for naught, however, in our weekly Scrabble games. We always get through four games over a period of around two and a half hours, and Mrs P always beats me by three games to one. Unless I’m having a really bad day, in which case I get thrashed four games to nil. Mrs P is very good at Scrabble, ruthless in fact!

And I love it, this weekly drubbing. It brings some welcome certainty to my confused post-working world, giving me a much needed anchor point in my otherwise shapeless existence.

If I’m getting thrashed again at Scrabble, at least I can be absolutely certain that it’s Sunday afternoon. Even more important, it reminds me that, the following morning, I won’t have go into the office to sort out the latest crisis and negotiate with a bunch of impossible politicians.

Retirement? You can’t beat it!

Bempton Cliffs: a tale of gannets, guillemots and gurgling guts

An earlier post described how the bird cliffs at Sumburgh Head were the highlight of an otherwise miserable trip to Shetland.  Getting to Shetland from our home at Platypus Towers was a bit of a pain. The journey involved a drive of over 400 miles, followed by an overnight ferry crossing of around 12 hours. 

When we finally got to Shetland the puffins were great to see, but I do wonder why we bothered given that we have some excellent bird cliffs much closer to home.

Bempton Cliffs in the East Riding of Yorkshire

Bempton Cliffs are little more than 80 miles away from us, in the East Riding of Yorkshire.  This area of the Yorkshire coast hosts England’s largest seabird colony, and the Bempton RSPB reserve lies at its heart.  It’s always worth a visit, as we confirmed on our way back from Shetland in June. It was, to say the least, an eventful end to our long summer break.

So, for the record, here is our tale of gannets, guillemots and gurgling guts:

*

We’ve left Scotland and its miserable weather far behind us, and as we walk out from the RSPB visitor centre on a gloriously sunny day our ears are assaulted by the calls of a thousand birds, and our noses detect the unmistakable aroma of a bustling seabird city.  We watch, transfixed, as squadrons of gannets patrol the towering cliffs, swooping and soaring along the sheer rock face, escorted from time to time by their loyal wing-men, the fulmars.

Squadron leader?

The Bempton area boasts one of the best wildlife spectacles in the UK.  Around half a million seabirds gather here between March and October to lay their eggs and raise their young on towering chalk cliffs overlooking the North Sea.

Gannets bang their beaks together and point them skywards to reaffirm their pair-bond

Within minutes we spot some puffins going about their business.  There are not nearly as many as at Sumburgh Head, nor are the views as intimate.  This is, however, our most successful puffin encounter ever at Bempton, and bodes well for the rest of our visit. 

Solitary puffin watching as the gannets swoop and soar

Bempton boasts sizeable colonies of razorbills and guillemots.  Most cling to the cliff face and are best appreciated through binoculars, but a few come close enough to enjoy with the naked eye.  Some of the razorbills are still sitting on eggs, but others proudly show off their chicks.

Razorbill adult and chick, with kittiwake behind

However, Bempton’s main claim to fame is its gannets.  The cliffs have the largest mainland gannet colony in the UK, boasting some 28,000 birds.  Each gannet jealously guards its own patch of rock, which it has carefully selected so it can just avoid the angry pecks of its neighbours.  Squabbles break out when a bird oversteps the mark and trespasses on a neighbour’s territory.

Gannets on the nest, and a solitary puffin

Meanwhile, other gannets swoop and dive beside the cliffs, and ride the updrafts to hang in the air just feet away from the cliff-top paths.  These are big birds, with a wingspan of over 6 feet, and when seen in large numbers flying along the cliffs or wheeling over the ocean they’re a magnificent sight.  We watch them for a couple of hours, mesmerised by their grace and elegance, and Mrs P is in danger of wearing out the shutter on her camera.

Gannets fills the sky at Bempton Cliffs

A visit to Bempton’s bird cliffs during the breeding season is a life-affirming and restorative experience.  It’s been a great day, and we round it off with dinner at a modest hostelry close to where we are staying for the night. I wrap myself around a gammon steak, and Mrs P gets up close and personal with lasagne.

The following morning, however, I awake to a gurgling from Mrs P’s guts loud enough to suggest Cuadrilla has opened a new campaign in its fracking business.  Within minutes a vile dose of food poisoning has set in.

Mrs P turns a whiter shade of pale, and spends an anxious hour locked in the bathroom. Finally she announces she’s fit enough to travel, but she has her fingers crossed as she speaks so we both fear she’s not going to make it back home with her dignity intact.  However, checkout’s at 9:30am, so we have little choice.

The 80 miles drive back to Platypus Towers is, inevitably, a nightmare, and the patient takes about three days to recover from her ordeal.

Mrs P swears she will never eat lasagne again

The NHS and me: An unhealthy interest

Worryingly, in my 64th year the NHS has started to take an unhealthy interest in my health.  For example, on my birthday in March they sent me a bowel cancer screening pack, though to be frank if they were going to give me a gift I’d have preferred a pair of socks or something else vaguely useful.  And then, a couple of months later, they packed me off to our local clinic for a blood test in preparation for a full health check down at the surgery.

PHOTO CREDIT: From Pixabay via Pexels

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve got no problem in principle with preventive medicine, and of course as you get on in years the need for it is greater than ever as your body slowly falls apart. 

My body is a case in point: I don’t think there’s been a day in the last ten years when part of it hasn’t hurt, and there have been plenty of times when pretty much all of it has been giving me grief.  But hey, pain is just nature’s way of telling you you’re not dead yet, and so is definitely to be welcomed as the lesser of two evils.

I’m in the waiting room at the surgery, playing the game we all play, checking out the other people sitting there and speculating on the nature of their afflictions.  Most of them look younger and healthier than me, which only serves to increase my sense of unease.

PHOTO CREDIT: From Rawpixel.com via Pexels

At last my name is called.  The practice nurse must be less than half my age, and is friendly in a brisk and efficient kind of way.  She ushers me into a consulting room, then starts taking measurements and asking questions. Nursie feeds all the data into her computer, alongside the results of my blood test, hits the enter key and sits back to await the official NHS verdict on my prospects.

I watch Nursie’s face carefully, hoping for some reassurance that I’m not about to drop dead before finding out who’s won this year’s Strictly Come Dancing.  But she is expressionless, inscrutable, and panic sets in. It’s bad news, isn’t it? I think to myself. My blood pressure is rising dangerously, which seems to defeat the object of my being here.  Finally, after a pause long enough to plan my funeral, she speaks.

PHOTO CREDIT: From Rawpixel.com via Pexels

“Well, Mr P” she says calmly, “I’m pleased to tell you that you’re classified as low risk.”

Relief surges through me, but Nursie’s still looking serious, thwarted even.  She returns to her computer screen, studying my results thoughtfully.

“But, of course, your cholesterol is a bit high.  You really should do something about that.”

Nursie smiles at last.  She’s on firmer ground now: the person sitting in front of her needs sorting out, and she’s just the person to do it.  We talk about my diet and agree that I need to make some adjustments. 

Then she asks about exercise and I admit that I don’t do any, partly because I’m worried about aggravating my chronic lower back problem, but mainly because I’m an idle bugger.  In a moment of madness I also confess that there’s an exercise bike, abandoned and unloved, in our spare bedroom. Nursie’s eye’s light up.

PHOTO CREDIT: From Rawpixel.com via Pexels

“That’s your answer,” she says triumphantly, “get on your bike and ride.”  I respond by pointing out that I’ve not been near the exercise bike for years, and will need encouragement to take to the saddle again.  I suggest she gives me a stern telling off, and she happily obliges.

By the end of the session I’ve agreed to cut down on cheese and butter, to get on the exercise bike five times a week and to read “How I’ve reduced my blood cholesterol,” an 80 page booklet produced by the British Heart Foundation and handed out free of charge to sinners like me. 

As I leave the consulting room I thank Nursie for her time, and promise to be a good boy in future.  Then I scuttle off to drown my sorrows at the local coffee shop by drinking something unhealthy, with a monstrous slab of cake on the side.

PHOTO CREDIT: Abhinav Goswami via Pexels

A couple of months later, progress is slow.  I’ve read the British Heart Foundation booklet, but if you tested me on it I’d get a D-minus at best.  I’ve given up butter in favour of margarine. And I’ve logged 3.7 miles on my exercise bike. OK, I admit that’s not great, but even Chris Hoy, Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish had to start somewhere, didn’t they? 

However, cutting down on cheese is a real struggle.

Silver Knife on Brown Surface

PHOTO CREDIT: From Pixabay via Pexels

You can keep your nectar and your ambrosia, in my book cheese is the real food of the gods.  In the end, maybe, Stilton will be the death of me. But if it is at least I’ll die with a smile on my lips, and cracker crumbs on my chin.