The loo rolls, the food grabbing, as Flanders and Swann sang: “Pee po belly bum drawers”

What is it with the bog roll? Food, yes, we can all understand that, but Andrex? 

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No, really, this could be fun. Of course, there’s a world of difference between not going out because you don’t want to (too broke, or miserable, or both), and not going out because you’ve been told to stay inside. Never has the pub beckoned so beguilingly or the Co-op seemed so alluring. I haven’t been to the British Museum for years but now that it’s closed I have conceived a burning desire to see the Assyrian galleries again. But I must be firm. My friend Ben calls to remind me that he usually breaks his arm around this time of year and we do not want the hospitals to be clogged up with the likes of me.

Meanwhile, everyone’s asking: what is it with the bog roll? Food, yes, we can all understand that, but Andrex? (Other brands are available, as they used to say on the BBC.) Everyone has their theories. There was someone on the radio the other day who said it was all about being seen to be doing something: a monster pack of 24 rolls can look impressive as you carry it to the car but you’re not going to put your back out doing so. It’s about fooling yourself and others that you are achieving something. I think this is nonsense, and if you’re going to be an armchair psychologist, or indeed psychoanalyst, you might as well go the full Freud.

So here’s my theory: in stockpiling food and toilet paper people are actually reverting to the first two stages of development, the oral and the anal. It’s all about filling the gaping hole of the mouth and then addressing the needs at the other end. It is a mass retreat into infancy. “Let’s all have an intellectual treat,” as Flanders and Swann sang: “pee po belly bum drawers.” Not having this particular problem, I am content with my four-pack of Co-op Soft White, which should see me out until June. 

Here is that impeccable resource, Wikipedia, on those who have been harshly or ineptly potty-trained, according to Freud: “They will form into an adult who hates mess, is obsessively tidy, punctual, and respectful to authority. These adults can sometimes be stubborn and be very careful with their money.” Hmm. Well, I am punctual, I suppose, but only out of consideration to others.

If you think this theory of mine is rubbish – or, if you prefer, shit – then I would like to remind you that I have gone out with at least one Freudian and one Lacanian psychoanalyst, and also spent many gruellingly silent hours with a strict Freudian analyst when I was about 12, so I do know what I’m talking about.
The only thing that surprises me is that no one has publicly mentioned this theory before. I suppose it’s because Freud is so unfashionable these days. But come on. Look at the current cabinet, and try to tell me that something funny isn’t going on there. Just look at the Prime Minister, for goodness sake, at his neediness, his girth, his clear dependency on gratification. As the shrink said of Basil Fawlty in the sitcom, there’s enough there for an entire conference. (See also: the current president of the United States. You see what I mean about the reversion to infancy? I’m hardly the first person to notice how babyish the two leaders are.)

The thing is to resist the primal urges and cultivate the life of the mind. Also to remember not to start going on about the Blitz spirit. Ben, whose arm might or might not have been broken in some freak DIY accident by the time you read this, mentioned during his call that the gangster “Mad” Frankie Fraser (why did they always put that “mad” in inverted commas? He was mad) said that the myth of the Blitz spirit was rubbish. People acted the way they did because they were told to, and moreover, it was the greatest time imaginable for a young criminal: you could loot houses to your heart’s content, and the police would be too busy, too under-resourced, to do anything about it.

Let us be more refined, more decadent in our isolation. I mentioned the Decameron last week, but this only really works if you’re stuck in the hills above Florence with a load of Tuscan nobility. I suggest we go for something more – well, a bit more – contemporary: the world-weary disgust of Des Esseintes in Huysman’s À rebours. Des Esseintes, you will recall, cuts himself off from all society on the grounds that he has experienced the full range of human depravity and has had enough of it.

“Already he had begun dreaming of a refined Thebaid, a desert hermitage equipped with all modern conveniences, a snugly heated ark on dry land in which he might take refuge from the incessant deluge of human stupidity.” (Translated by Robert Baldick, Penguin Classics.) That seems about right to me. By the way, does anyone have any eggs? I’ll exchange them for sex. Or, as Freud would put it, full genitality. When all this is over. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 25 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The crisis chancellor

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