A funeral in the time of Covid

Milly’s been sick for almost two years, going downhill steadily as Motor Neurone Disease tightens its grip. It’s a cruel condition, remorseless, destroying her body but leaving her mind intact. Helpless, she watches herself slowly waste away. When she finally passes we are sad to say goodbye, but relieved that her suffering is finally over.

The church in the village where Milly lived is closed, being too small for services to be conducted safely while the virus is still active. Instead, the funeral is moved to one that is a little larger, a few miles from her home. It’s a decent sized country church and probably seats around 200 people in normal times, but because of the virus, attendance today is by invitation only and limited to just 30 mourners. Others wishing to pay their respects must stand outside, and listen to the service relayed on loudspeakers.

We put on our facemasks before entering. Only the pews in the nave are available; others in the aisles on the left and the right are out-of-bounds. To facilitate social distancing each pew is limited to just two mourners, the first pair sitting to the left, those in the row behind them to the right, and so on. It looks and feels surreal, this funeral is in the time of Covid.

The priest takes his place, wearing a clear plastic visor. He welcomes us, and apologises that this will not be the sort of funeral to which we are accustomed. It doesn’t matter, we think, we’re simply pleased that we are able to gather here to pay our respects. The social distancing, the facemasks, the other restrictions, none are of any lasting consequence when seen in the context of the life that Milly has lived and lost.

The coffin bearers enter. Incomprehensibly, while everyone else in the church is masked-up, they aren’t. Why? It’s inconsistent and makes no sense, but that could be said of so much of the official response to Covid-19. Our government is clearly making it up as they go along, and while I don’t seek to minimise the challenges they have faced I do worry that they simply aren’t up to the job. I’m tempted to say that they’re a joke, but plainly this is no laughing matter.

The service begins: the prayers, the Bible readings, the eulogy. All standard stuff, swiftly and efficiently executed. But no hymns. The priest advises us that singing is not currently permitted at religious services, as it increases the risk of spreading the virus.

Instead he flips a switch, and a recording of Dear Lord and Father of Mankind fills the air. It’s a familiar hymn that most of us learned in primary school and, although we’re not allowed to sing out loud, as I glance around me I sense several mourners mouthing the words within the privacy of their facemasks.

The end, when it comes, is unexpected. Today would have been Milly’s 89th birthday, and as the coffin bearers carry her from the church the priest flips his switch again and Happy Birthday to You echoes around us. It’s a bit quirky, and therefore in keeping with the rest of the morning’s proceedings. We are reminded that, although we are here to mourn, today is also a celebration of a life well lived. Covid-19 cannot and will not be allowed to distract us from this simple truth.

Rest In Peace, Milly.

Simple pleasures

We’d got big plans for 2020. No overseas visits – we wanted to spend a full year in the UK recovering from our 2019 New Zealand adventure – but plenty of travel here at home: a week in Norfolk, a few days in Liverpool, a fortnight in Cornwall, a long weekend at the British Birdwatching Fair in Rutland, and a Scottish odyssey centred around a two-weeks stay in the Orkney Islands. But Covid-19 has blown our plans out of the water: we’re going nowhere in 2020.

Instead, 2020 has become a year of simple pleasures. For more than three months we barely left the house, other than to buy food, so there was plenty of time to read. As a means of escape I’m working my way through the Jeeves novels and short stories by controversial novelist PG Wodehouse. Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse is claimed by some to be the funniest writer of all time in the English language. That’s overstating his abilities, I reckon, but he’s definitely brought me some welcome comic relief in recent weeks.

Written over a period of 60 years between 1915 and 1975, the Jeeves stories comprise a series of tales about upper class buffoon Bertie Wooster, a supremely stupid representative of the English idle rich who’s always getting into scrapes, and Jeeves, his smart, suave and sophisticated personal manservant, who invariably comes to his rescue. The early 20th century class system portrayed by Wodehouse is achingly absurd – grotesque, even – and one is left wondering how Britain ever achieved its prominent position on the international stage when ineffectual prats like Wooster ruled the roost.

My lockdown reading!

The Jeeves stories allow us to glance over our shoulders at a (thankfully) long-lost world, one in which rich White Englishmen did what they liked and everyone else did what they were told. However the books are wittily written, and as long as we remember the historical context and laugh at the appalling aristocracy rather than with them, it’s just harmless, escapist nonsense. And god knows, in the year of Covid-19, we all need opportunities to escape.

Speaking of escapism, we’ve also been using lockdown constructively to binge our way through all eight seasons of Game of Thrones. We missed out on it first time around, but if ever there was an opportunity to find out what all the fuss is about it’s now, when we’ve got loads of time on our hands and not a lot to do with it.

Small Tortoiseshells have been common this year

And what a treat it’s been, an epic fantasy, a seething cauldron of death and deceit, dwarves and dragons, debauchery and depravity. Blood and guts litter the landscape in nearly every episode, while power-mad tyrants battle for ultimate control and leave mayhem in their wake. To be honest, it seems not unlike a normal day in the politics of your average western democracy.

For an old cynic like me it’s always been tempting to assume that something as popular as Game of Thrones must be cheap and nasty, just populist rubbish that combines mass appeal with minimal merit. It isn’t. Quite the reverse, in fact. The production values are superb, the characterisation vivid, the narrative complex and compelling. There are few positive aspects of Covid-19, but for us one of them has been creating the space and motivation to finally watch a TV show that just about everyone else on the planet has already seen. Love those dragons!

With opportunities to go out and about strictly limited, initially by government edict and then by our own caution, we’ve spent more time than ever before in our little garden. Thanks to my bad back and knackered knees I don’t look after the garden as well as I should, and it therefore has a slightly wild and unkempt appearance, like my Covid-19 hairstyle. But despite this – or perhaps because of it – the birds and the bees and the butterflies have visited regularly throughout the summer.

2020 has provided an abundance of bumblebees

One day I even spotted a bat, clinging to a pondside plant in broad daylight. It was during a hot spell and I assume he’d gone to the pond to take on water. He took off before Mrs P could grab her camera, circled two or three times around the garden before flying away. A rare treat, something we’d probably have missed in a “normal” year when we’re away from home for much of the time.

Less rare, but still a treat, is a visit from Milky Bar. Regular readers of this blog will know all about Milky Bar, a local cat who claims our garden as his own. Although he occasionally exerts himself by hunting insects, he is probably the most idle cat in existence and spends most of his time with us sleeping, waking just occasionally to chase patches of shade as the sun tracks westwards across the sky. Milky Bar is a great character, and his visits throughout lockdown always lifted our spirits.

Milky Bar: the most idle cat in existence

It would be banal to say that 2020 has been a year like no other, but clearly what’s happened in recent months was unimaginable as 2019 drew to a close. Mrs P and I have got off lightly. The virus has – so far, at least – passed us by, and as we’re retired and financially secure we’ve been spared the worries about the future that have afflicted so many working people. Instead we’ve spent our days here at home, comfortable and content.

It could have been so much worse and we’ll be forever grateful for our good fortune, and for life’s simple pleasures.

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Postscript: for all you CAT-LOVERS out there, here are links to other posts featuring Milky Bar:

Hair today, gone tomorrow: bouncing back from lockdown

First the good news: after a wait of over five months, Mrs P has at last had a proper haircut. My wonderful missus likes to wear her hair short, in a simple elfin style. The closure of hair salons during lockdown therefore made her miserable, as her locks edged inexorably towards her shoulders. A state of emergency was duly declared, and the Platypus Man was called upon to wield a pair of scissors. I think it’s safe to say I have not found a new career.

photo of saloon interior view

PHOTO CREDIT: Guilherme Petri via Unsplash

The government finally allowed hair salons in England to re-open on 4 July, but when she contacted her hairdresser Mrs P was dismayed to learn that other members of the sisterhood had beaten her to it. It seems that women-folk right across our neighbourhood had been suffering similar torments, but they’d been quicker off the mark in booking appointments. Five anguished weeks followed before, at last, hairdresser Sue was able to fit her in.

Returning from her appointment, Mrs P bounced into the house like a new woman. The measures the salon had put in place to protect clients and customers from coronavirus had been thorough but not onerous, enabling my good lady to relax while Sue got down to business.

And down to business Sue did indeed get, snipping, clipping and primping merrily until order was restored to my wife’s rampant mane. Both literally and figuratively, a weight has been lifted from her shoulders: Mrs P’s got her mojo back. She looks great.

But now for the bad news: my good lady has declared that I too must have a haircut. I generally avoid male barbers like the plague, being pathologically incapable of holding up my end in random banal conversations about soccer, cars or superhero movies. Instead, I let Sue sort out my hair as and when necessary. However, it’s been more than six months since I last sat in her chair of shame, and I’m enjoying a new sense of freedom.

man in blue and white shirt wearing black framed eyeglasses

PHOTO CREDIT: Mostafa Meraji via Unsplash

You see, male pattern baldness is embedded in my genes, and has been making its presence known for two or three decades. I’ve not got much hair left now, and I cherish every last strand that has remained faithful to me.

Moreover, I’m a child of the sixties and look back lovingly to my hippy past. OK, I wasn’t a real hippy, but I admired their hedonistic lifestyle and carefree attitude to the cultural norms of their parents. To celebrate their values, in my university years I allowed my hair to grow until it brushed my shoulders, long, thick and luxuriant.

Ah, those were the days!

It’s occurred to me in recent months that the haircutting hiatus initiated by Covid-19 offers the ideal opportunity for a new beginning. Or perhaps more accurately, the chance to relive my glory years.

I therefore boldly suggested to Mrs P that lockdown is just the beginning, that now is the perfect moment for me to grow what’s left of my hair down to my shoulders again, and maybe even to have a ponytail. Her reply was short and to the point: it’s not going to happen, and if I don’t get it cut voluntarily she’ll do it herself when I’m asleep.

Huh!

So we’ve agreed on a compromise. Mrs P’s booked her next appointment with Sue for early November, and one for me 30 minutes later. Could be worse, I guess: at least I’ll have a couple more months to enjoy my rediscovered hirsute-ness.

And with any luck we’ll be in lockdown again by November, and hair salons will be closed until spring 2021. That should give me plenty of time to explore my inner hippy. Peace, man!

green peas peace sign

IMAGE CREDIT: Stoica Ionela via Unsplash

The truth is out there – just ask a librarian

There’s no shortage of information currently circulating about the causes of, and cures for, Covid-19. Trouble is, much of it is just plain wrong, being based on ridiculous conspiracy theories – for example, that 5G phone networks are to blame for spreading the virus – or profound ignorance. The latter is exemplified by the recent speculation that ingesting or injecting household disinfectant could cure the infection. Bloody hell, words fail me!

The crisis has only been around a few months, yet already Wikipedia offers a 16,000 word piece on “Misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic.” So the burning question is, just who can you trust to point you in the right direction?

Personally, I would always trust a librarian to do just that. One way or another, I’ve spent most of my life in and around libraries. I always get a buzz of excitement in them. All human knowledge is available in, or accessible via, a properly run library. All you have to do is find it, and there’s no better way to do that than to ask the librarian.

Librarians are information professionals. It’s their job to help us find the information we need, accurate information from reliable sources. Many also have a wicked sense of humour. The image below was sent to Mrs P by one of her friends. Just read the book titles from top left to bottom right, and have a quiet chuckle at the creativity of one immensely knowledgeable librarian, albeit someone who maybe has too much time on his – or her – hands at the moment!

Libraries in the UK – and many other countries, I think – are struggling right now, so when the current crisis has passed why not pop into your local branch and check it out? You may be pleasantly surprised by what’s on offer. Meanwhile, you could try out the library’s digital offer. Various library services are available online these days, and could have been designed for lockdown living!

When Covid-19 gets personal

Every evening we watch the 10pm news on the BBC, pinned to our armchairs by the latest tidal wave of torment. The rising death toll, the shattered lives, the financial crisis, the lost jobs, the missed targets, the missing PPE. It keeps on coming, misery piled upon misery. But it’s so horrible that it somehow seems unreal, resembling a dark soap opera with a scarcely believable plot and actors who appear to be making it up as they go along.

Of course we’re not totally immune to the impact of the pandemic. Mrs P – who is particularly vulnerable due to her asthma – hasn’t left our property for six weeks, while I venture out only on Wednesdays to shop for us and her parents. The queues at the supermarket are getting me down, the shortage of flour has been frustrating, and wearing a mask makes my glasses steam up and leaves me stumbling around blindly. I’m always pleased to get back to the safety and calm of Platypus Towers.

However, these are minor irritations. Life goes on, and so do we. We are healthy, comfortable and keeping busy with all-manner of in-house projects and activities. Covid-19 is undoubtedly a curse, but it felt like we were just playing bit parts, walk-on roles in a disaster movie that’s being acted out all around us.

But then Covid-19 got personal.

Pat, my second cousin, who – with her son, Mark – is my only living blood-relative, phoned from London on Sunday morning with shock news. She and her husband, and Mark and his wife, have all been sick with Covid-19. Worst still, her father Tommy – my “uncle” Tom – also caught the virus, but it got the better of him.

Dad passed away yesterday morning, Pat explains sadly.

Tommy had seemed indestructible. We all knew that he couldn’t go on forever, but it wasn’t meant to end like this. It feels like he, and we, have been cheated by that wretched virus.

He would have been 100 years old next month, and to celebrate the milestone Mark was in the process of arranging a family party. Covid-19 has turned that dream, and a million others across the world, to ashes.

Although we weren’t exceptionally close, I have many fond memories of Tommy. His was the first car I ever rode in – my parents didn’t drive – and when I was small it was a special treat to escape London for a while on a Sunday afternoon drive into the countryside with Tommy and his wife Ivy.

Years later, when I was at university, he used his position with the Post Office to get me on the list for a job at the local sorting office in the run up to Christmas, giving me a welcome opportunity to earn some much needed beer money! These, and countless other kindnesses, whirl around in my mind as I write this. He was a good man.

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Excellent although they are, the BBC news broadcasts can never get across the full horror of this virus. It seems to me that only when Covid-19 gets personal does it fully make the transition from disaster movie to a real-life, real-time tragedy.

Mrs P and I last saw Tommy in August, at Mark’s wedding. He was in good health, albeit a touch grumpy. But at his age a certain irascibility is inevitable and forgiveable, and also rather endearing. Sure as hell Pat, Mark and the rest of us would give anything to witness his grumpiness again.

Rest in Peace, Tommy.

A 17th century experiment in social distancing

My last post lamented that a minority of my fellow citizens have refused to comply with the social distancing rules brought in to help control the spread of COVID-19, preferring instead to party. Regrettably one of the examples of such behaviour that made the national headlines was in my local area, just a few miles from Platypus Towers.

However it’s not all bad news around here, and I’m pleased to report that one of the most remarkable, selfless acts of social distancing also took place right here in my home county of Derbyshire. Not yesterday, not last week or even last month. No, this extraordinary act of self-sacrifice took place in the picturesque village of Eyam in 1666, an incredible 354 years ago!

Eyam

PHOTO CREDIT: “Eyam” by jodastephen is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The story began in London, in 1665, when the city was ravaged by bubonic plague. The epidemic lasted for 18 months, during which time it’s estimated that 100,000 people – one quarter of London’s population – lost their lives.

Bubonic plague was transmitted via the bite of infected Black Rat fleas, and in summer 1665 a consignment of cloth infested with those fleas brought the disease some 160 miles north of London, to the remote village of Eyam in the Derbyshire Peak District. The cloth was ordered by tailor Alexander Hadfield, but it was his assistant George Viccars who was the first to succumb to the disease it brought with it, on 7 September 1665.

The plague had gained a foothold in Eyam, and as time passed more villagers took ill and died. By the end of 1665 over forty plague deaths had been recorded and the following year, as winter turned to spring, many villagers considered fleeing to somewhere – anywhere – else where they might be safe from the disease.

One of the “Plague Cottages” in use at the time of the epidemic

At this point local clergyman William Mompesson intervened. Recognising that if the villagers fled they could spread the contagion to the nearby towns of Manchester, Sheffield and Bakewell, he determined that the village should isolate itself from the rest of the country. And with that, social distancing – 1666 style – came to Eyam.

The rules of (dis)engagement that Mompesson persuaded villagers to accept were deceptively simple:

  • nobody was to enter or leave the village, for any reason
  • food supplies would be delivered to drop-off points at the village boundary. Here villagers would leave coins soaked in vinegar to pay for the food delivered by the Earl of Devonshire’s men and others.
  • church services would be held outdoors
  • the churchyard was to be closed, and the dead buried in fields at the edge of the village
  • families would bury their own dead

In effect, the people of Eyam locked themselves away from the rest of the world, and let the disease run its natural course. By the time the restrictions were lifted, some 260 villagers had died. The size of the village population before the plague arrived is unclear, but it’s likely that at least a third of its inhabitants – and perhaps a much bigger proportion – died during the lockdown. Sadly, rector Mompesson’s wife was one of the victims.

At the height of the outbreak – in August 1666 – a total of 78 people died. That month Elizabeth Hancock buried her husband and six of her seven children over a period of eight days. The spot where she interred them – in an unremarkable field on a hill some way out of the village – remains a poignant reminder of a time of unimaginable hardship for the people of Eyam.

The historical record is such that we can go beyond mere numbers, and understand the human cost of Eyam’s decision to isolate itself. The death of Mompesson’s wife and the tragedy of Elizabeth Hancock’s family are two examples. A third is the story 22-year-old Emmott Sydall, who was engaged to marry a lad from the next village.

A “Plague Grave,” dating from just before the closure of the churchyard

When the restrictions were imposed Emmot was no longer permitted to get up close and personal with her fiancé. Instead the two star-crossed lovers had to content themselves with rendezvousing at an agreed spot at the edge of the village, to stare lovingly into one another’s eyes from a safe distance. But one day the ritual ceased abruptly, and Emmott never went there again. The plague had taken her.

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Mompesson lost his wife, but achieved his goal. Although Eyam was ravaged and achieved notoriety – even today it is known as the Plague Village – the outbreak did not spread beyond its boundaries to surrounding settlements. From the broader perspectives of history and epidemiology, Mompesson’s 17th experiment in social distancing can therefore be regarded as a success.

I doubt, however, that Elizabeth Hancock or Emmott Sydall’s fiancé saw it that way. There are losers, as well as winners, in any experiment with social distancing.

Every August, on the last Sunday of the month, Eyam holds a memorial service to recognise the sacrifices of those who died in 1666 so that others might continue living. They call it Plague Sunday.

I wonder how we, as a society, will remember those who have lost their lives in the fight against COVID-19?

This is not the time to party

A few days ago, the media reported on a “massive party” held in contravention of the UK’s emergency rules on social distancing, rules that have been introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m saddened to say that the party went down in Derby, just ten or so miles from Platypus Towers, although to be fair I guess it could have happened anywhere. Shortly afterwards there were reports of a pub holding a “lock-in” for regular drinkers at Sutton-in-Ashfield, also just a few miles from where I’m writing this, in flagrant disregard of the restrictions currently in place.

orange and white digital watch

IMAGE CREDIT: Glen Carrie via Unsplash

While most of us are adapting to the current restrictions, a few of our fellows seem to feel that they’re being unfairly treated. They appear to believe that they’ve been singled out for what the Americans might call cruel and unusual punishment, and that they are therefore justified in continuing to do their own thing, regardless of the consequences for the rest of us. Their actions are making a clear statement: “these rules, these restrictions on personal liberty, don’t apply to us.”

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When you’re in the midst of a crisis there’s a natural tendency to assume that your misery is unique, that no-one’s ever had it quite so bad before. But it ain’t necessarily so. COVID-19 isn’t the first pandemic in human history, nor, I’m certain, will it be the last. This should come as no surprise – after all, it is in the nature of bugs to mutate, just as it’s in the nature of our immune systems to adapt to those mutations. That battle is set to continue until the end of time.

The so-called “Spanish flu” of 1918/19 was by far the worst pandemic of the last century. It’s estimated that around 500 million people caught it, which amounted to about a third of the world’s population at that time. The death rate was huge:

The number of deaths [from Spanish flu] was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.

Source: Website of the CDC (The USA’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Meanwhile, at the time of writing (10am, 4 April 2020) Worldometer reports 1.1 million cases COVID-19 worldwide, and 59,247 deaths out of world population of 7.7 billion. Plainly, during an ongoing crisis any such numbers must be treated with a huge amount of caution; however the contrast between Spanish flu and COVID-19 is stark.

In quoting these figures I’m not seeking to minimise the current crisis, nor to underestimate the suffering of those affected, their families and wider communities. And it’s also plain that while Spanish flu is history, COVID-19 exists in the here and now: nobody knows when it will end, or just how the numbers will stack up when it does. However, the evidence is that humanity has been through something similar before, and had to find ways of coping. Maybe we can learn from history?

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I’ve been vaguely aware of Spanish flu for as long as I can remember. As a student of history it’s one of those things I just picked up along the way. But not for its own sake: rather, it was merely a sad footnote to the history of World War 1, the ironically dubbed war to end all wars. It never occurred to me to look beyond the numbers, to question how society a century ago tried to cope with a rampant epidemic.

Trawling the Internet today I’m not surprised to learn that, here in the UK, we coped badly. Medical science was in its infancy and the disease was poorly understood. In any case the National Health Service did not exist, meaning that a co-ordinated strategy for dealing with the pandemic was impossible.

Moreover, the State had minimal ability to influence and control societal behaviour. A couple of weeks ago, before he himself went down with COVID-19, Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on television and ordered citizens to stay in their houses unless they had a reasonable excuse such as shopping for basic necessities, seeking or providing medical assistance, taking exercise (alone, or with other members of the household only), or travelling to or from work (but only when it is impossible to work from home).

It is inconceivable that, in 1918/19, Prime Minister Lloyd George could have envisaged such draconian measures – government’s willingness to reach into the day-to-day lives of its citizens was much more constrained a century ago. Communicating the need for “social distancing” would in any case have been fraught with difficulty without the broadcast media, Internet, and mobile phone technology that we take for granted today. And even had such restrictions been successfully communicated, enforcing them would have been all but impossible.

As the Spanish flu crisis deepened, responses to it were locally devised rather than nationally prescribed, and as a result were patchy. For example

In Rotherham, posters were displayed in prominent parts of the town, and health visitors and school nurses distributed leaflets from door to door, encouraging people to keep dirty handkerchiefs out of the reach of children. The Borough of Hackney recommended that victims stay isolated, go to bed the moment symptoms appeared, and gargle with potash and salt. In Keswick, Cumbria, the Medical Officer arranged for a free supply of “disinfectant mixture”. Every morning, formalin was sprinkled on the floor of Brighton’s public library and post office, and tramcars were fumigated in Doncaster.

Source: History Extra website. Retrieved 4 April 2020

Attempts at social distancing were at best half-hearted. At the height of the outbreak hundreds of elementary schools were closed, but only when staff absenteesim forced the issue. Secondary schools remained open throughout, and church services proceeded as usual. Factories continued to operate, and there was no ban on entertainments and public gatherings.

In short, there was no “lockdown,” as we now understand it, in the UK’s response to Spanish flu in 1918/19. Individuals, families and communities struggled on as best they could. The vast majority got through it, though it must have been a traumatic experience.

However, around 228,000 British citizens died as a result of the Spanish flu pandemic. And I’m sure that every last one of them would have put up with the temporary inconveniences caused by 2020-style social distancing, if they had believed doing so would give them – and their families, friends and neighbours – a better chance of survival.

If they’d been offered a simple trade, a lockdown or a life, they would have chosen life. Sadly they didn’t have that choice. We do.

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Generally speaking I’ve been impressed by the way people have adapted to the COVID-19 crisis, supporting one another, putting differences aside and doing the right thing. But, as my opening paragraph illustrated, there are still some moaners, some selfish individuals who feel their right to party supersedes society’s short-term need for social distancing.

I get it, I really do. What we’re being asked to do is contrary to our custom and practice as citizens of a proud, free democracy. Moreover humans are primates, social animals. We’re hardwired for social interaction, not social distancing.

But now is not the time to stand on principle, to play at politics or to throw our toys out of the pram. Together, we need to hold our nerve, to do the right thing by our families, friends and neighbours, and to trust that our scientists and medical professionals will help us find a way through the crisis.

There will be time enough to party when all this is over.

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?

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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.