Zoe Williams
December 1, 2011

When I was a kid, my mother hoarded food against the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse. That an attack could be so imminent was a source of real terror – as was the fact that all we’d have to eat afterwards was condensed milk and tinned salmon. (Someone told me that when her grandmother moved, they found 82 cans of salmon. I don’t know how this became the go-to food for chiliasts and survivalists, but I have an idea: it’s because it is pink.)

Once you’re an adult, your parents’ behaviour ceases to frighten you. I remember a moment in 2002 when the water my mother had stockpiled for the Y2K meltdown was past its sell-by date, but luckily she had another 200 litres set aside for world war three (after 9/11), so she was going to use her millennium water for washing. And we had this big family row (against which possibility she had secreted a torch and a weapon in each room) about whether or not she was mad, or my sister and I were just politically unaware. It’s not “awareness” to think that the world is about to end, we said. That’s not what people mean when they put “current affairs” on their CV under hobbies.

So here is one spectrum on which we can place hoarding behaviour – paranoia to good sense – although exactly where depends, of course, on what’s going on in the world. Having condensed milk is only ridiculous because a nuclear war didn’t happen. It’s natural that a person who remembers a world war would think catastrophe closer to hand than a person whose most memorable disaster is that time it got really windy in 1987.

It did strike me in 2008 that it might be time to start stockpiling rice. Nobody was saying the phrase “end of fiat money” back then (they are now), but Gordon Brown had that look on his face like he was only holding it together by stabbing himself under the table with a fork. However, someone pointed out to me that there was no point trying to raise yourself above everybody else: if you’d amassed enough supplies to last longer than a week you’d most likely be stormed and looted, so you’d be in the same position as the rest except lonely, and with a broken front door.

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