A tale of panic buying from nearly forty years ago. My attempt to lift the spirits as we all contemplate lock down
On Saturday morning I battled through a local Sainsburys the size of an aircraft hangar to do the weekly shop, expecting to find acres of empty space as the fear of contagion gripped the good burghers of Bromley, sending them scurrying to their online grocery accounts. No such luck. The shop was rammed with anxious shoppers doing a remake of supermarket sweep. For the second week in a row, the toilet paper aisle was stripped bare by the pillaging hordes, followed closely by the dried pasta aisle and the sanitiser and paracetamol sections. No-one seems remotely bothered about their cats or dogs, however, and the unspoken fear remains that eventually this crisis will end with everyone making spag bol from Pedigree Chum. Without the spag.
As I prepare for an extended period of self-isolation (previously known as “getting old”) my mind has wandered back in time to an earlier period in my life, when I encountered the full range of panic buying experiences, and learned something invaluable about the standard human response to moments lived in extremis. The year, gentle reader, was 1981, and I found myself living Spain in an early version of the gap year. Back then, this was simply a way for wasters to put off clambering onto the mortgage treadmill. Having greatly enjoyed three years at York University, an educative holiday generously funded at the taxpayer’s expense, I was searching for an innovative means of extending this period of investigative scholarship. I had dipped my toe into the waters of full-time paid work and, to be honest, it was not to my taste. It was certainly not what my years of training had prepared me for.
Thankfully, existential crisis was averted when an old school friend, who had spent the previous year doing TEFL in Madrid, contacted me and suggested I go out to Spain to play. And so it was that in the late summer of 1980 we found ourselves in Valencia looking for English teaching jobs. I had no experience, no training and not much idea. My friend had at least done it before, but that was the extent of his advantage. What we did have on our side, however, was luck and good timing, historically speaking. We were both English graduates in Spain at a time when the TEFL industry was, to put it mildly, a bit of a cowboy operation. We were, to our surprise, snapped up and began life as teachers at the Global School of Languages, under the guidance of proprietor Senor Petit, a huge French Algerian man of prodigious appetites and precarious finances.
He was a true eccentric who constantly surprised. (not least in his approach to the regular payment of salary owed) He would at intervals arrive at the office dressed in full, traditional Arab robes and head dress, complete with mirror shades and would wander in and out of lessons, much to the delight of the little old well-to-do Spanish ladies who made up the bulk of the clientele. At least once a week, during quiet moments he would announce to the group of young English lads that worked there, “Muchachos, vamos a jugar” and he would take us all down to the bar in the street and pay for all the drinks while we did a Space Invaders tournament. We literally never knew what to expect from him, from one day to the next, and forgave him many missed or late payments because he was rather fun. It might have been different of course if we had had families and responsibilities, but we were, to a man (and it was all men) feckless wasters, so it all seemed part of a glorious adventure.
And then, one afternoon of a pretty slow day “teaching” a group of IBM business men (how he had secured this extremely prestigious contract with IBM was baffling to us all and was never satisfactorily explained) the door swung violently open and Senor Petit burst into the room.
“Everyone out! There’s been a coup d’etat. Go home. There’s an announcement due. The army are out on the streets!”
We all, teacher and students, looked at each other and after a pause, burst out laughing. That Senor Petit, eh? What a card! Always the joker.
He looked baffled at our reaction. “No, no, I’m serious. There’s been a coup in Parliament. Everywhere is closing. You’ve all got to go. Now.”
Eventually the penny dropped and we all realised he meant it. Spain was in the first flush of democracy after surviving under the jackboot of the fascism of General Franco (or General Francissimo, as our Spanish chums rather disrespectfully called him) and a few disgruntled members of the old Guard, under the leadership of a ridiculous character, Lieutenant Tejero, had marched into Parliament , fired a few shots and declared a military coup. For a local point of comparison, imagine Mark Francois doing the same thing in Westminster to “save” Brexit. Francois is actually more likely to shoot himself in the foot, but you get my point. It was serious and there was mass panic, with no-one knowing what side the King of Spain, Juan Carlos, would come down on: Democracy or Military rule.
I did my usual walk home, several hours earlier than normal, through the centre of Valencia. The streets were absolutely packed and you could feel the atmosphere – a strange mixture of fear, excitement and shock. Just about everyone was scurrying through the streets with small transistor radios jammed up against their ears, desperate for the latest news. The local newspaper was published every two hours and the whole thing felt like being in a film. You know the sort of thing: brave, principled British journalist in a far-flung former colony, caught up in a military coup carried out by brutal extremists. Said journo risks life to get the truth out, while getting involved in a liberal, caring way with local little-person campaigners, with a bit of love interest thrown in. Local colour is dispensable as far as the plot is concerned and a couple of those characters die, including, tragically, the love interest, despite the heroic best efforts of plucky liberal journalist. Brit journalist returns to Blighty at the end of the film a sadder and a wiser man. That, of course, was the scenario I was running through my head on my fevered walk back to my flat. It was tremendously exciting, not least because at the back of my mind I was pretty certain that, as a Brit, I was safe because there were certain rules about this sort of thing. As I was to discover later, it was an entirely different scenario for most of my Spanish friends, all card-carrying members of the Spanish Socialist party. More of that later.
I noticed, as I dodged the crowds and weaved in and out of the traffic that was choking the city streets, that lots of people were struggling with heavy bags of shopping, and that at several shops I passed, queues had formed which snaked out of the doorway and down the street. I did a double take, a bit baffled that now of all times, people would choose to do their shopping, but then I realised what was going on. They were panic buying. The news on the radio was sufficiently apocalyptic to ensure that everyone feared the worst. Good news was in short supply and the best response to this unprecedented situation was to assume that we would be holed up at home for days and that food was likely to run out.
By the time I had worked this out I was nearly back at my flat, away from the main drag, in the splendidly seedy streets of Barrio Carmen, a neighbourhood of prostitutes, drug takers, revolutionaries, artists and ne’er-do-wells. Blindfold, one could always tell when one had arrived back in those familiar alleys because of the smell: a heady cocktail of sewers, garlic and marijuana, a smell redolent of adventure and contagion. Of Risk.
My flat was in a crumbling four story tenement block arranged with several others around a tiny plaza in the middle of Carmen. It was litter strewn and daubed with graffiti, but the shabbiness was brilliantly illuminated by a neon purple Bougainvillea that clung to the wall of the block opposite. I use the word “plaza” loosely. It was in fact the tiny bit of space created when, to steal from Charles Dickens, the surrounding blocks leaped apart out their conspiratorial huddle when disturbed by members of the Guardia Civil. One block went off to help the police with their enquiries and the others hung back a little smoking a Ducados and looking a bit shifty. That was the Plaza where my flat was situated.
But there was one notable oasis in this desert – a tiny shop in the next block from us. It was the human equivalent of the Bougainvillea. Milagritos it was known as. “Little Miracles”, so called because its cramped interior was crammed with every conceivable item of Spanish food and wine known to man. Just before going up to my flat I popped in there expecting to have to wait patently in a queue, but the inhabitants of Plaza Lowlife were a little more laidback than their mainstream contemporaries. It would take more than a military coup to get them to lengthen their stride. The shop was empty and I was able to casually select some choice delicacies: Several plump chorizos, beans, tuna, fruit salad, bread, coffee, two cartons of UHT milk and a ridiculously cheap bottle of Rioja.
The toothless owner grinned and cackled at me, “Eh, Chico, has ganada el Gordo, no?”, the sentence delivered with her Ducados precariously balanced in the corner of her mouth, its familiar, pungent black-tobacco smoke contributing to the curing of the Serrano hams that hung from the yellowing ceiling. “El Gordo”, or “The Fat One” was the big Spanish lottery rollover. She was clearly surprised to see me buying anything more substantial than a baguette and a hunk of cheese. I smiled, and staggered out of the shop with my bags cradled in both arms, struggling with the door while trying to keep everything balanced and secure.
I crashed into the flat, the door swinging on its hinges as I made it to the kitchen table, lunging the last couple of steps so that the bags spilled their contents out onto the bleached and scarred wooden surface. Just as I did so, there came a voice from behind me.
“Hey, you beat me to it. You been shopping as well? What did you get?”
It was Alan, my flatmate and general partner in crime. He was equally laden as I had been, two bulging brown paper bags in his arms. I proudly itemised my purchases one by one as I laid them out on the table. It was an impressive haul. We could survive a siege with the supplies arrayed on the table.
“Not bad,“ conceded Alan, grudgingly, “Not bad at all. Well done that man. We’ll not starve at any rate.”
“Yeah, it’ll do for a bit of panic buying, “ I replied, feeling rather pleased with myself. “What did you get?”
Alan smiled, knowingly, and placed his bags on the table.
“No panic buying for me, old boy. Mine are carefully considered essential supplies” And with that he emptied the bags.
Four hundred cigarettes, premium Ducados of course, three bottles of Scotch and three bottles of Larios Gin.
“Man cannot live by bread alone,” he explained, catching my wide-eyed reception of his shopping expedition, “Especially when one is living through the eye of the storm of History.”
He smiled, evidently pleased with his preparations, and then a frown passed across his face, like a cloud. “Oh, nearly forgot.” He fumbled in the pockets of his jacket and extricated two bottles of San Miguel, opened them and passed one over to me.
“Cheers” he said as we clinked bottles, “It’s gonna be a long night.”
And it was. He was right about that and right about his emergency supplies compared to mine. So, please, don’t stockpile toilet paper and paracetamol, stockpile alcohol and books. It was a long, long night full of extraordinary adventures that seem barely credible now, nearly forty years later here in mainstream Europe. Part two will follow, as my contribution to keeping spirits up during this Coronovirus nightmare. I have a terrible feeling that I’m going to have to do parts 3 , 4 and more because this thing is going to get worse. Keep safe everyone and best of luck.