After a cycling circuit on Friday that took me via Westfield all the way to Harlesden High Street – my exercise ration and shopping trip allowance combined – I ended up at the Cash & Carry on Golborne Road. It’s always been a go-to store for those harder-to-find household bargains (tins of jasmine tea, anchovy multi-packs, extra-strength Bombay Mix, etc.), and when I had my first seriously apocalyptic thoughts – on Friday 13 March, as it happens – it was where life as a hoarder began for me. The brown pasta shelf at Tesco’s had been bare for days, and the saucepan’s-worth of fusilli in my kitchen cupboard was looking ominously inadequate. Fortunately, North Kensingtonians have a taste for the refined, at least when it comes to carbohydrates, and the Cash & Carry had two triple-packs of wholewheat spaghetti left. After contemplating how many to grab (perhaps you can guess . . . ?), I joined a dozen or so customers in the check-out queue. As we shuffled towards the till, listening out for coughs and snatching more provisions on the way, a woman near the head of the line became so agitated that I made a note of her words after getting back home. ‘They’re reusing the masks’, she said. ‘It’s outrageous. They should be burning them. They should burn the bodies too. Outrageous.’
I’ve no idea what she was talking about. Though she might have been a stressed health worker, she’s just as likely to have been a nutter: whatever the case, no one in the shop took her seriously. Even at the time though, her complaint signposted the peculiar direction this country had taken. Now, two weeks further along the path, it’s not her words that are odd so much as the circumstances in which they were uttered. It’s already strange to remember that you could until recently panic-buy provisions at your leisure in a crowded store on a busy street.
Though my fear of eating differently has lessened, my food shopping is becoming as strategic as it used to be impulsive, and Friday’s replenishment and reconnaissance mission took me through a different world. The consumers on west London’s high streets already seem to keep their distance almost instinctively, while supermarket security guards have become bouncers: the ones at Poundland on Portobello Road wouldn’t stop shouting ‘one-in, one-out’ at a docile queue that never got longer than four. Almost all the smaller shops that were open looked fully-stocked to bursting, and the only proprietor worried about imminent shortages was a philosophical fishmonger (‘if the fish goes, it comes back, but health? Maybe not’) – and yet, there were hints everywhere of bigger problems to come. My local halal butchers, confident that their own links to three British farms would hold, knew of an abrasive competitor who’d had to close because his supplier thought he’d previously taken too much for granted, and they themselves had accepted (and passed on) price hikes of around 10% ‘for the sake of people who rely on us’. It’s easy to be sceptical – if you’re overcharging customers, scapegoats higher up the supply chain are useful – but there’s every reason to believe that pressures throughout the distribution network are intensifying. At a fruit ‘n’ veg stall further up Portobello Road (one of three still standing), someone called Cheryl told me that European border closures and global flight restrictions had turned the wholesale market at Hounslow into a ‘war zone’. Unless she was just making excuses for her own higher prices (and it didn’t come across like that), retailers were battling for limited supplies – ‘literally dog eat dog’, if Cheryl was to be believed – and she was paying up to three times pre-pandemic prices. Most worryingly, the market porters at Hounslow are ‘so pissed off they might just pack it in’ – at which point independent sellers like her would stop being able to load their vans at all. For all the tranquility that’s descended over London’s streets in recent days, nothing in the retail trade sounded calm – and though shelves are full, they’re about as stable as the eye of a storm.
Gurinder Singh, who co-owns the Golborne Road Cash & Carry with his brother, was relatively upbeat when I asked how things had been going since Friday the Thirteenth. Toilet paper was iffy, and they hadn’t been able to source any handwash, but sold-out stock had otherwise been replaced, and business was ‘almost back to normal – down 90%’. When I asked if they expected to stay open for the duration though, he wasn’t exactly optimistic. Hopeful would be a positive way of describing his mood; nervous might be a better word. ‘We want to’, he said – ‘but who knows?’