Asda on the Edge of Apocalypse

Posted March 15, 2020 in covid19, Diary  |  2 Comments so far

We’re at a phase in the coronavirus situation.

When I said “a phase” just then, I intentionally didn’t insert any adjectives like “serious” or “weird” because while this weekend might seem like a weird phase today, it might not seem weird at all by next weekend. Next weekend we might be looking back at today and thinking about how normal it felt, that it was anything but weird. Next weekend might present us with a new understanding of what counts as “weird”.

So all I can say, really, is that we’re at a phase in all this. It’s different from how it was last weekend and it’s different from how it will be next weekend. It’s a phase.

During this phase shops are still open and it’s not against the law to leave your house. My children’s usual activities like swimming, parkour and ballet class all happened. Public transport was running. Does all of this normal, banal stuff sound weird to you, if you’re reading this one week or one month from now?

We went to Asda in Walthamstow. It was different from yesterday, when we went to Waitrose in Westfield. Waitrose had sold all its toilet roll and kitchen towel – which would have seemed very weird two weeks ago, come to think of it – but otherwise Waitrose seemed normal, if a little quiet. I got a much stronger sense of impending social collapse in Asda today.

Several sections of the shelves were completely bare. There was no toilet roll, no dried pasta, no painkillers. The image of the empty painkiller shelves stuck with me. It wasn’t a big surprise to see that but really, that would have seemed very weird two weeks ago.

People didn’t really seem scared or panicked in Asda but I don’t think the phrase “mildly spooked” would be overstating it too much. Maybe a lot of them were feeling the same thing as me, the weirdness of seeing these empty shelves, of seeing up close these early indications of the strain being applied to the unseen systems that supply us. Maybe if I’d been there earlier, when the shop still had toilet paper and pasta and painkillers and people were trying to buy all of it, maybe there would have been more fear and panic in the air then.

After visiting Asda we walked through the main shopping mall and I looked at the shopfronts and adverts. These posters and displays still wanted people to buy things like clothes, or perfume, or mobile phone contracts. A little bit optimistic on their part, I thought. People only care about toilet roll and pain relief now. For a moment I remembered the scene in Threads where survivors of the nuclear holocaust barter over bags of dead rats against a backdrop of a faded Standard Life advert.

Picture of nuclear holocaust survivors in front of 1980s advert

Post-armageddon advertising

In Superdrug, there was an explicit policy that no customer would be allowed to buy more than two items of any painkiller product. Again, the signs saying this would have been very surreal to even contemplate a month ago, but when I saw them I just thought it was a sensible thing to do. We were able to buy some Calpol. And also, in Superdrug, there were still a lot of people, mainly younger women, who were interested in things that weren’t toilet paper or pasta or painkillers or bags of dead rats – instead, they were intently studying makeup and hairspray and other items in the cosmetics section, as if it was just another day. Will they still be doing that next weekend, though? Or will that have become weird too?

2 comments so far.  Post a comment

  1. Cathy
    March 15, 2020 at 11:03 pm [ Permalink

    I like the hairspray women who aren’t interested in dead rats. Even though I actually hate hairspray.

  2. Rebecca
    March 19, 2020 at 9:48 pm [ Permalink

    Interesting. We also went to an Asda on the 15th.

    The Waitrose in west Oxford has been stripped of loo roll/kitchen roll/tissues, wet wipes, paracetamol, rice and pasta for weeks, but as of Sunday the Asda on the other side of town seemed to be getting on with things relatively normally: no bare shelves, nobody piling their trolley high with conspicuous amounts of toiletries, other shoppers still happy to practically knock you over and climb over you to get to the groceries or get their shopping on the conveyor belt a few seconds earlier – no “social distancing” here. The only sign of anything abnormal was a dispenser of antibacterial wipes for basket handles. I didn’t see anyone use one.

    I felt like I had hit on some socioeconomic truth about the relative market sectors of Waitrose vs Asda, so it’s interesting to see how geographically dependent it is.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment