22 May 2020
* taken from graffiti in the window of a squat on Deptford High Street
I am a shop assistant at an independent grocery store, a key worker living and working in a low-income London neighbourhood being eaten alive by gentrification. I have been working before and during…the lockdown, epidemic, pandemic, COVID?…no, the ‘Holidays’, as my colleague calls it, as in ‘We will have more stock after the Holidays.’ These are my observations.
First, a little about my work and neighbourhood. I work in a small grocery and sweet shop, which has existed on Deptford High Street for some 50 years. My boss is an old traveller” made good, and my colleague, an exile from his war-torn homeland. They represent the area writ large, a heady mix of working class English, Irish, Vietnamese, Caribbean, African, Turkish, Afghani, Sri Lankan and Indian stall holders and shop keepers flanking either side of this ½ mile high street. My shop serves this diverse community.
The Holidays struck some six weeks ago. The first significant sign was the panic buying, and it made me sick to the stomach. Instead of buying a normal quantity, some people would pick up stupid quantities ‘just in case’. Only those with lots of cash can afford to panic buy, leaving those living hand-to-mouth without their weekly shopping supplies. Panic buying is contagious, it panics others, becomes self-perpetuating, and ends up creating shortages. I saw in a matter of a week, our mountainous supply of rice (some 200x5kg bags), diminish to 3 bags; I was awe-struck! For the first time, the idea of rationing seemed like a good idea – at least that way everyone gets something, rather than a few getting it all.
Even in the run-up to the Holidays, we at the shop became nervous about the risk of infection. Working on the frontline, we serve customers at close quarters, in a shop sometimes packed to the rafters with people browsing and shopping. I can only describe the effect of exposure to the virus as a physical experience. It is like radiation, invisible but continually sapping your resistance, so that at the end of the day you feel more run-down than usual. As a fellow shopkeeper commented, ‘It’s scary’. Another commenting about exhausted NHS workers said: ‘Their skin colour was not the normal yellowish you expect. They turn green!’. With new worrying signs emerging each day, we decided to shut the shop until it felt safe enough to return.
Three weeks later, my colleague and I felt ready, so we opened the shop two days a week. Our regular customers were grateful, and it is their appreciation for the work we do that inspires us to keep going. However, this time, I decided we needed to control exposure in the shop, so I put up a sign in the window reading: ‘Two customers in the shop at a time’. This was not just to protect ourselves as workers, but to protect our customers, many of whom are elderly. To enforce this, I stood outside and asked new customers to wait until someone left. This sort of queuing is highly unusual for this anarchic high street, but so long as you were polite and fair, people were understanding. Taking control of our spaces for the safety of us all is not enforcing ‘social distancing’, but enacting ‘physical distancing and social solidarity’.
The Holidays have affected people differently. Some believe they are impervious to infection. Others believe the whole thing is a hoax. Some react with pure fear, with total distancing. Some of our regulars come to sit and chat, failing to appreciate that times have changed. Others just look totally lost, especially those out of work – the other day, a customer hung around the shop, a glazed expression in his eyes. He stood around, in the shop, in the doorway, outside, then sat in a chair; he didn’t seem to know what to do with himself. The experience has taught me to respect other people’s perspectives and be empathetic, but also to put my foot down to assert my own preferences as a worker at risk.
The Holidays have stripped away the veneer of ‘normal life’, to expose the inconsistencies that permeate so much of British life. The government tells us not to engage in ‘non-essential’ travel, while ‘non-essential’ building sites for luxury flats continue to operate, spreading infection and spewing dust and noise on those forced to stay at home. The pavements are clogged with middle-class lycra-clad joggers and cyclists too good for physical distancing, and speeding drivers tear down our roads. Platitudes, like ‘we are all in this together’, fall flat, as you observe the lack of solidarity in people rushing about like lonely ants, or in the strolling, smirking yuppies, or the self-righteous rants of the ‘stay at home’ brigade.
That is not to say that everything about the Holidays has been bad. We have clean air in London for the first time, the roads are emptier (but not less dangerous), the pace of life has slowed appreciably, and there is time to rest and eat well (we are inundated by requests for ‘flour’, in what must be a home-baking bonanza). Freed from the rat race and everyday vices, many people now possess a healthy glow. The essential role of key workers has entered the public consciousness, even if slightly tainted by bouts of patronising, orchestrated ‘clapping’. Sometimes I am not sure which is worse: a return to business-as-usual or continuing the Holidays indefinitely.
Note from Lumpen Editor- *The word “gypsy” was in the orginial post. We’ve since removed this and replaced it with traveller.
Our key workers are everyday heroes, putting their health and lives at risk to serve us all, Holidays or no. And I don’t just mean the nurses and doctors, but our shop workers, cleaners, posties, bus drivers, waste collectors, street sweepers, etc. etc. Meanwhile we are controlled by those keen to exploit us; political opportunists, overzealous police, landlords raising rents, or tax-evading companies seeking bail-outs while laying-off thousands. The Holidays have been consciousness-raising, but we need to look long and hard at ourselves, our society and our values if anything positive is to flow from it.
Whilst some from travellers community do claim that term (such as this editors family), others do not. As editors we should have been more careful about the use of the term by someone who is not from those communities. There’s no question that the author meant any offence, and should have been supported better by the editorial team on this. The mistake is wholly that of the Lumpen editorial team.