In the end there’s toilet roll

So we’re all cooped up in our homes and finding new ways of baking that 5-kilogram bag of flour into things that hopefully look somewhat different. Bread. Scones. Pizza—Hope against hope, on we bake through the sheer and the rough. The world is sidling its way around the shallow end of a deep puddle and we’re all in an indefinite sustained state of quarantine and social distancing, an interlude from life as we’ve come to know it… To the point where one can safely begin an essay with a conjunction without worrying too much about the consequences! Really, who cares? There are more dire necessities—for one thing, toilet roll.

I’m of course referring to what will in future be called by scholars The Great Toilet Paper Rush of 2020, caused by perhaps the most unexpected expected disaster to face humanity in at least 102 years. (Except for that other time we all didn’t agree that Global Warming was a thing and in one or two generations the wallpaper was peeling off the walls—but I’m getting too far ahead of myself.) One thing for which apocalyptic zombie movies didn’t prepare us was people scuffling in the streets for little rolls of white paper pulp. That’s at least one thing every soapbox Nostradamus surely got wrong: hold the toilet roll and you shall finally drive civilisation into that chasm out of which it once climbed. This lack of imagination on their part doesn’t at all surprise me: I can understand panic-buying canned foods, meats, rubbing alcohol and hand sanitiser, even biscuits and chocolate, but I don’t think I would’ve ever thought of toilet paper as a basic human necessity. Indeed, having been introduced en masse to the west as recently as mid 1800s, and considering there are western countries even today that choose to do without, as commodities go this one is by no means so deeply ingrained in our culture as to run parallel with our constitutional rights. And yet visiting a supermarket less than two weeks back one would certainly think otherwise. 

I myself have never quite figured out the bidet, which begs the question: do I need to reassess my priorities? When I think of the end of the world surely my next thought is never a panic-stricken ‘How will we manage to wipe our bottoms?!’ Perhaps it should. While half the world was blitzing supermarkets like locust, leaving nothing but the carcasses of their used-up plastic gloves behind, filling up their carts as if we really were at the gates of a veritable zombie apocalypse, I popped over to stock up on such staple necessities as my life required for the next couple of weeks: meat, vegetables, tea, tonic, popcorn, the odd biscuit. We weren’t entering nuclear fallout shelters, we weren’t setting our doors to release us in 15 years, but most everybody around me seemed to react as if we were. At no time was there any question of supermarkets closing. We had the evidence from other countries and cities that had already been in lockdown for weeks and months that life went on as normally as possible, albeit in a reduced, responsible, soapy sort of way. The extent of the sacrifice asked of most of us was to stay home as much as possible, hunker down, gain some weight and netflix it out. We could even walk the dog—how’s that for an apocalyptic image? Clearly, it wasn’t really the end of civilisation. On those terms, my priorities were the same as ever: for instance, popcorn is requisite at our weekly movie marathons at home and we were almost out; on the other hand, we had enough toilet roll to last us a good two weeks at least, so that wasn’t on my list. However, I did walk by the half-ransacked toilet paper aisle, where people were squabbling like a bunch of seagulls around some fish guts. I could see the big ‘family’-packs were gone straight away, and grubby little sausage fingers were now closing on the remaining few dozen-packs, picking them up in fours and sixes, till these too vanished, whereupon the last sorry sausages to the spoil were finally settling for the lousy, impractical packs of twin rolls. Of course, I found myself laughing at the spectacle, for there was nothing else one could do—except perhaps feel a twinge of humanly shame. 

For all our outward refinement we are on the inside never too far off from turning into those semi-automatic beings incapable of controlling our impulses that B movies have taught us to fear, always merely a bite away from becoming bitey ourselves. For one brief moment there our whitewashed eggshell veneer of civility, propped up by such delicacies as the toilet paper that keeps our souls unsullied by the baser necessities of our perishable anatomies, was voraciously secured by such uncivil behaviour as grabbing for ourselves without the least flurry of a thought for others, and even by the unsightly scuffling in supermarket aisles, right next to the bleach and the shampoo. Now, how’s that for an apocalyptic image? 

However little can be said to justify some people’s actions, I do think that our recent and apparently mindless toilet roll craze has at root a somewhat rational explanation. People gaga for tee-pee: of course I had to investigate further. Perhaps it wasn’t so much that it merited further investigation rather than that I had few better things to do… But investigate I did, and I came up with two hypotheses that seem sound enough to mention. 

The first stipulates that even if toilet roll is not foremost as basic needs for human survival go, one could argue that, at least in those countries where it has been widely adopted, it is held as a basic standard of comfort. This makes sense, for who hasn’t looked on that dwindling toilet paper roll in a hotel room in a strange country as a source of mild unease and wondered if next morning the cleaning staff would think of putting in a new one, followed by the overpowering suspicion that you’d better just finish it off or at some point tomorrow you’ll find yourself facing that last little square. Perhaps part of that very human reaction toward vague, nonviolent threat, that standing one’s ground when abstract fear looms, includes refusing to let go of certain comforts one has got used to. A sort of they-may-take-our-freedom-but-they’ll-never-take-our-toiletries! bravado, if you will. Still, I’m not entirely convinced. In a society that tries its utmost to hide whatever happens behind bathroom doors and misplace the recollection that each of us is indeed only as spiritual a being as the intervals between our corporeal necessities allow, I doubt most would have the foresight to think of stocking their bathroom for the next couple of months before thinking of stocking their fridge. However, I saw no unfolding drama over at the meats or produce sections, though stock was low—not as low as that of toilet roll, of course, but low enough. And seemingly not one person was thinking of stocking their pantries: the canned goods shelves were replete, yet there was no one in sight. Granted, if you’re a couple of rolls away from needing to add ‘BUY TP’ to your shopping list, you might think: ‘Oh, now I’m here—well, I should think I’ll need much more than my normal share if I’m gonna be stuck at home for a while!’ but, otherwise, I think the next hypothesis fits much better into the canon of mass hysteria. 

Actually, I feel it has less to do with outward defiance or a defence of basic comforts and more to do with squelching that feeling of loss of control, and doing it with as little expenditure of effort and means as may be. It’s essentially a regression to a childlike state in the face of uncontrollable, uncertain oncoming circumstances—but with an adult’s budgetary frame of mind. As I’ve previously detailed in an essay some years back, all children are collectors. The first things collected have to do with clinging on to that sense of protection felt in the womb and, later, parents’ arms. Often it is not the object itself that fills a specific need in a practical sense but rather the holding on to the object, whatever it may be, which provides comfort and a feeling of security. In this sense, if given the option one is as likely as not to choose quantity over quality, as more of the one thing should certainly mean more of the other. In a similar fashion, toilet roll, lots of it, makes people feel as if they can somewhat regain control amidst a situation that is actually in all probability entirely out of their control. A panicking person enters a supermarket in quite a state of bedlam and tries to collect their thoughts: what do they really need to comfortably survive the next two, three, four weeks at home? When into shot enters a massive extra-large bag filled with the softest, silkiest white paper pulp surrounded with and 80s-pop haze under the bright supermarket lights. One can only imagine ancient mariners must’ve felt the same sense of overwhelming safeguard as they set eyes on the massively straddling, gold, 80s-pop-hazing figure of the sun god Helios on approaching the harbour at Rhodes! Suddenly, that panicking person feels like everything will be OK: they’ll be prepared for any outcome, even the end of the world, if only they can amass a small fortune in toilet roll. The fact that each gorgeous titanic bag containing 24 such rolls weighs as little as even a baby might be able to carry is yet another reason to rationalise that this commodity above all others was designed to see them through any lengths to which this crisis might expand. And then, of course, there’s no denying that just behind the notion that their family might yet be spared because they were well able to haul home not one or two but three, even four such bags, what satisfies them most is that they’ve paid a mere pittance! Indeed, I don’t think any item you may find in a normal supermarket can possibly beat toilet paper in terms of size-to-price. (I should say probably water and fizzy drinks come in a soft second but who’d want to lug large quantities of them about?)

I propose the following account as rigorous scientific evidence: I saw a man expressing himself out the supermarket doors carrying what can only be described as a year’s-worth of toilet paper, and nothing else: no food, no hand sanitiser, nothing. He had that triumphant, simpering expression one normally associates with tiny self-celebrated victories of the kind one has when managing to walk some intended distance without stepping on any line in the pavement. For this man at least it seems no hardship we may face from this crisis could be more menacing than finding himself sat on the john with a grey husk rolling freely by his side. Perhaps he wakes up in sweats at 3 am at the prospect. Who can fully comprehend the inner demons of a man or woman, especially one who finds comfort in toilet roll? But clearly, as he carried his armfuls of toilet paper, that man felt perhaps the same way a pigeon might when it manages to wangle a bag of crisps: that his provision was mighty and would see him through these hard times. Of course, he may all but starve in the next couple of weeks (though, mind you, he’ll do so with a squeaky clean bottom!) but for now his gargantuan hoard of this specific cheap and easy-to-carry household item makes him feel indestructible. To my mind, this great goose of a man shows us it is in the bulk and not the content that one finds true safeguard in such uncertain times. As irrational as that may sound in normal days, perhaps the irrationality of a crisis tweaks our perceptions, so that making an apple pie with oranges seems quite natural. 

The rest, the explanation of why so many people have fallen down the same well, can be attributed to your run-of-the-mill bandwagon phenomenon. With at least a few rational individuals hopping on behind as they see the dwindling supplies in their supermarket and a very real fear of there being nothing left presently sinks in. And as perfectly sensible individuals timidly start going for that second bag, knowing they too are now at least tittering on the edge of hoarders’ delight, the slippery slope toward such things as actual shortage, mercenary rule and disgraceful price spiking is unfurled.

For now, it seems The Great Toilet Paper Rush of 2020 is winding down, even as the global quarantine still has no certain end in sight. Proving once again that when extraordinary times become ordinary, and those early panics lose steam, the idols we scrambled to erect begin to gather dust. Although one still generally finds toilet roll shelves emptier than usual, demand has at least considerably normalised to the point where supermarkets seem to be able to restock as quickly as people are buying it. People’s attention has shifted toward more rational essentials and proper prioritising is now in effect: meats, produce and canned foods, for instance, are now much more depleted than before. It still isn’t the end of the world: things are as one would expect when people come in for groceries once every week or two but, other than that, all supermarkets are open and you can still get just about all you need—Well, except popcorn! Popcorn has now gone the way of toilet paper in the early days. It beggars belief, but it’s true: it’s perhaps the only thing aside from rubbing alcohol that is still completely sold out anywhere you go. Perhaps just as people’ve realised that streaming services are not quite so boundless as initially believed, they’ve also found ‘netflixing it out’ just not as enjoyable without popcorn. However, once again I must wonder: an item that’s easy to gather up, carry and stock at home, and it’s cheap as chips (or as itself, actually)… No, surely we can’t fall twice down the same rabbit hole! Can we?

Regardless, the fact that the burning desire to get one’s hands on toilet roll was short-lived, and that people have been able to outgrow it and move on to drain other ponds, is yet another means of proving that the motivation wasn’t the need of the object per se but rather that it was readily available in great and inexpensive quantities. Of course, we are by no means free from foolishness now that things have somewhat settled. We may perhaps find comfort in knowing our bathroom habits are again safe but considerably more dangerous folly is now pushing its narrow head into other narrower heads. It is one thing to scoff and ponder lightly on the evils of hoarding toilet paper because, after all, as I’ve striven to demonstrate in this essay, toilet paper is of substantially little importance and, what is crucial, it’s deficiency does no real harm to society. However, it is quite another thing when silly notions born from sheer ignorance and boredom make people behave in ways that are not only uncivil but reckless and entirely self-serving. 

It would seem that when very silly people exhaust the few inner resources available to them they find it intolerable to spend one moment more cooped up with their thoughts and so, like over-excited beagles, they feel they must be let out. When such people get it into their heads that as ‘this is all just a big conspiracy’ they should assemble in numbers, hand-in-virus-ridden-hand, and rave or rage, or they simply assault a healthcare professional or two because, while they are tirelessly working to get this pandemic under control, they’re also ‘filthy virus-spreaders’——let’s just say one finds oneself longing for the good ol’ simple days when people just lost their minds over toilet roll. 

I think one will find that many of the people who now tout such nonsense are the very same who scrambled first to get their grubby little mitts on all the toilet paper they could, tearing bags from each other’s arms like beetles grappling for a great ball of dung. But perhaps these people were right in their first assessment: perhaps all we need to save us from the end of the world is toilet roll! The one idea is at least as rational as the other.

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