Basic Necessities

Jo Glanville

The government announcements that flash up on Twitter tell us that shopping for basic necessities such as food or medicine is one of only four legitimate reasons for leaving your home (although the regulations include 13 ‘reasonable excuses’). But what counts as a basic necessity? The police and local councils have announced that Easter eggs are ‘non-essential goods’. In Plymouth, the police tweeted that ‘going to the shops for beer and cigarettes is not essential’. In my local Boots, in north-east London, the self-service cosmetic racks are covered up as if they’re an offence to modesty, with a sign saying ‘sorry cannot sell as it is non-essential’. The pandemic has unleashed a rash of puritanical dictums on what we’re allowed to buy.

Twenty years ago, when I was researching a Radio 4 documentary on the liberation of Belsen, I was given access to letters and accounts written by some of the British soldiers who liberated the camp in April 1945. One letter described the arrival of Marlene Dietrich, in search of her sister, an inmate at Belsen who was then working in the British army kitchen. The soldier kept the cigarette Dietrich smoked, with the imprint of her lipstick.

Another account described the delivery of a consignment of dresses to a women’s ward. When the soldier looking after the ward arrived the next day, he noticed that the box of sanitary towels on his desk had suddenly emptied and thought at first that it must be a sign of physical recovery. The women then jumped from their beds to show off the dresses they were wearing: they had used the sanitary towels as shoulder pads.

But the account that made the biggest impression on me, and altered my view for ever of what counts as a ‘basic necessity’, was written by an officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willet Gonin, on Nazi stationery stamped with SS insignia. He described the ‘insurmountable’ difficulties in ‘the Horror Camp’. When the medical team met in the evenings for their daily debrief, which finished at midnight or later, it was the alcohol that kept them going and stopped them ‘from going as mad as most of the internees’. Belsen was a ‘barren wilderness’, filled with huge piles of corpses, ‘naked and obscene’. Men, women and children died from starvation in front of Gonin and his colleagues:

One had to get used early to the idea that the individual just did not count. One knew that five hundred a day were dying and that five hundred a day were going on dying for weeks before anything we could do would have the slightest effect.

He saw internees with dysentery defecating in the open, and a naked woman washing herself with water from a tank with a child’s body floating in it.

One day, to Gonin’s surprise and dismay, there was a large delivery of lipstick. ‘This was not at all what we men wanted,’ wrote Gonin. ‘We were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don’t know who asked for lipstick.’ But he observed a remarkable transformation in the women at the camp. ‘Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet lips.’ He saw a woman’s corpse on the post-mortem table with lipstick clutched in her hand. ‘At last someone had done something to make them individuals again,’ Gonin wrote. ‘That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.’ Sending lipstick to a concentration camp, he thought, was an act of ‘sheer, unadulterated brilliance’.

Shortly after the documentary was broadcast, a reader who heard it wrote a letter to the Guardian. She had witnessed an asylum seeker trying to buy mascara in a supermarket with a government voucher. The cashier refused to sell her the mascara because it was a ‘luxury’ and apparently not covered by the terms of the voucher.

Last week I asked Boots head office if they had prohibited the sale of cosmetics since the lockdown. They said they were no longer staffing their premium beauty counters, but customers should still be able to buy cosmetics from self-service areas. So it looks as if the ban in my local branch may be down to an overzealous manager.

Essential items are not only the goods that keep us alive, but the ones that make us human. The government has not defined what it means by ‘basic necessities’ in the legislation, but lipstick should certainly be among them, and so should Easter eggs.


  • 9 April 2020 at 2:25pm
    prwhalley says:
    I could be offended by someone comparing the experience of prisoners at Belsen with that of Brits who have to spend a few weeks keeping to themselves to prevent the spread of a virus that could kill their older or more vulnerable relatives, friends and neighbors. But we’re all under a lot of stress at the moment, so I’ll let it go.

    • 9 April 2020 at 6:16pm
      Tim Adam says: @ prwhalley
      Well Said. The idea is to discourage the exchange of germs, people from going out shopping. The pharmacist understands. If I have to cut my own hair, then lipstick can wait too.

    • 10 April 2020 at 8:39am
      Cotherstone says: @ prwhalley
      That wasn't the point of the article.

    • 10 April 2020 at 7:23pm
      prwhalley says: @ Cotherstone
      It really kinda was. Though maybe through cluelessness more than anything else.

    • 12 April 2020 at 7:40am
      Nicky Hamlyn says: @ prwhalley
      Surely it was making a basic point about how 'luxuries' help people to keep themselves human? It wasn't literally comparing the situation in Belsen with what's happening now.

  • 11 April 2020 at 6:43pm
    kate wi says:
    I liked the article. What are 'basic necessities'? Things that may surprise you. There is not the intention to trivialize the general meaning of 'basic necessities.' Simply: some seemingly small things can mean so much and make a great difference to someone. That's worth remembering in any situation.

  • 12 April 2020 at 6:33pm
    Roman says:
    Beautiful reflection: the appearance of the scarlet red lipstick and its humanizing effect on the women. A restoration of the aesthetic order. What is "essential" to being human seems, then, to include the beautiful. Conjures up scenes from Primo Levi's "If This Is a Man".

    I doubt Mr. Glanville is suggesting that the harm borne by Brits under temporary restrictions on certain luxury items is equivalent to the horrors borne by Belsen internees. That would seem to lunge at a point that is only secondary to asking after the value of "non-essential" goods. The question posed is what is essential.

  • 13 April 2020 at 3:24am
    Jane Buchanan says:

    O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
    Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
    Allow not nature more than nature needs,
    Man's life's as cheap as beast's: thou art a lady;
    If only to go warm were gorgeous,
    Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st,
    Which scarcely keeps thee warm.

    Thou art the thing itself:
    unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare,
    forked animal as thou art.

    • 13 April 2020 at 9:43pm
      Graucho says: @ Jane Buchanan
      Talking of Lear and lockdown ,,,
      Get thee glass eyes;
      And like a scurvy politician, seem
      To see the things thou dost not

  • 14 April 2020 at 4:09pm
    JL Levin says:
    Thank you Jo. Rainbow drawings in windows and clapping on Thursday evenings are not necessities either - but they clearly matter to people. My partner and I were fortunate to have thought of Easter eggs before we locked down nearly four weeks ago - and it did matter to us. It brought us a little sense of luxury and normality, which will be harder to hold on to as time goes by and a 12-week 'imprisonment' becomes harder to manage, even with a garden in the countryside.
    Likewise, buying plants online and receiving local deliveries of compost along with the loo cleaner may seem to some to be luxury. But look at the other side of this - our local hardware shop is not collapsing, the nursery I have bought plants from is not collapsing and its delivery service is not collapsing. And we are growing flowers for joy and fresh vegetables for health (and more joy). I found the Belsen comments fascinating and not at all inappropriate. They made me think not only of much much worse situations than many of us are in but also of those now who have not enough to live on and to feel more tolerant of what seems essentail to others if not to me, a fortunate oldie with sufficient pension but also a challenged oldie whose apparent fitness disguises underlying health problems which probably could not withstand C-19.

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