That Still, Small Voice
I heard somewhere that no society is more than three meals from rebellion. I canít remember who said it originally, and itís not in the books in my Library, but itís wrong anyway. I am sure that almost everyone who was there for the Great TESCO Food Fight still had many more than three meals secreted away in their multifarious larders. They were there under the pretext of urgently needing Alka-Seltzer or Brillo Pads, or more Cranberry Sauce, or Dijon Mustard, or stain-remover. In fact they were really there to express their God-given right to shop. And to stand up and fight for that right if necessary. But that all happened on Friday, TESCO Food Fight Friday, TFF Friday. We need to go back to Tuesday. Tuesday 4th of January 2000.
A few hardy souls ventured forth on that wet and windy day, but most of us stayed in and watched Men in Black and The Horse Whisperer. We noted perhaps, that all the programs were recorded, that there had been a lot of timetable changes, and that the news was short and sweet and low on content and somewhat strained, but we didnít care. The Government had declared a week of national holiday ĎTo celebrate the Millennium properlyí, and most people were too hung-over to notice or worry. Those few who ventured out to their local superstore met only closed doors, and a little hand-written sign saying "Closed for Stocktaking". Peering through the windows they saw no sign of life and lots of mostly empty shelves. I suspect they shrugged irately, mumbled drunkenly about drunken supermarket staff, and wandered down to their nearest corner shop for their fags and figs and furniture polish. There were no newspapers, which seemed strange.
I went down on Wednesday. Same sign, but the lights were on, there were people moving about, and there were three security men hanging about outside. I approached one to ask when the shop would be opening. "Donít know, Guv." was the uninspiring if unsurprising response. I and several dozen other people, drifted around for a while, but nothing transpired so we drifted off, as others drifted in. I went along the next day too, Thursday. This time there were perhaps a hundred people hanging around outside the shop and a dozen or more security people. At least they were wearing security badges, but I was pretty sure I recognised some of them as people who normally worked in the shop itself. After all, where would you find an extra dozen security people when the worldís on holiday and more than 5,000 other stores are trying to do the same thing. They seemed nervous. I approached one, a young pimply student-type who had, I was almost sure, helped me fill my boxes a week or so earlier. (Hoarding on credit? Me? How could you think such a thing!)
"So when are you going to open then?" I asked politely, not quite squeezing his nuts, but perhaps looking as if it had crossed my mind. He gave me his best "I-only-work-here" kind of simpering shrug, and turned away. (If you donít know what a simpering shrug is, I can only suggest that you practice shrugging and trying to be elsewhere at the same time. Only please do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.) Not to be so easily simperingly-shrugged off, I pursued him, only to be confronted with two rather largish men who clearly were much closer to being real security guards. One raised his eyebrow quizzically, and the other raised his truncheon quizzically. "Harrumph!" I said, or some such Tolkienesque snort, and backed briskly off in a hurried, but somehow heroic way.
I stood around, muttering and privately fomenting dissension, until I realised I was cold and wet and bored and worried. I decided to go and buy my carrots, currents, croutons, caramel creams and other essential items beginning with the letter C, from my local corner shop. This happened to be a petrol-station which was having trouble with its till and had taken up not being self-service, so you had to wait for someone to come and serve you at the pumps. But they would still sell you stuff, cash deals only, though their stocks were pretty low. "The van hasnít been since last Thursday." they explained, selling me a week old cucumber, and a crusty cream cake. There were still no newspapers.
On my way home I called into my local for a post-millennial swifty. Some of the guys were there, shooting pool. One of them, a sales manager type from one of the little local database companies, was merrily suckering suckers into money games. Conning them into believing that this short, fat, stupid looking, scar-faced, ham-fisted loser was just that. The guy was a real pain, and not just because he regularly beat me at pool. He had churningly charmless charisma, a millimetric social varnish over an ugly personality, and he would cheat at solitaire. But I put my marker down, told myself again never to play for money, and went to the bar. The barman nodded and pulled as I approached.
"I hear the supermarket will be open in the morning." he said conversationally.
As I had been up there not ten minutes before and been confronted with a deafening and threatening silence on the subject of the opening of the self-same supermarket, I was naturally somewhat sceptical.
"Straight up!" he said, "They put a notice up about it."
This finally proved two things to me that really I had known perfectly well all along: that Einstein was wrong and Hawkings was right, information does travel faster then light. And secondly, that my natural and innate sense of timing means that, like everyone else, I will always be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or vice-versa.
Glad of an excuse to repocket my 50p marker, I swiftly swallowed my swifty, waved a random farewell, and high-tailed it back up to the supermarket, just to see for myself.
I must break off for a moment here to shed a quiet tear of bitter regret as, after twenty years of crawling around in the mud like an Earth-worm with worms, I re-remember suddenly the blasé way we used to dash about; jumping in our cars to go down the local, or driving to the supermarket for a box of matches.
Go anywhere Ė be anywhere.
Go now - go again.
Come back - stay away.
Travel light - pack your bags.
It was all so easy, so available, we didnít even think about it, it just was. And then, in a matter of months, of weeks really, it was all gone.
All of it.
Our horizons shrunk from universal to microscopic, from world affairs to eating dogs, from Cider with Rosie to Lord of the Flies.
Of course my horizons shrank more than most; itís amazing how big things look when you canít get off your knees. But I guess the whole world is on its knees right now, and all our problems look big.
Hey! Iím a living metaphor and I never knew it.
This is the notice that they had stuck on the superstore door. I remember it pretty much word-for-word, because I grew very attached to that supermarket, for a time.
Dear Valued Customers,
We regret any inconvenience that may have been caused by the extended stock-taking exercise at this shop over the last few days. This was necessitated by an unforseen but minor technical difficulty. We are attempting to resolve this very minor technical issue as quickly as possible, but regret that we are presently unable to offer you the high levels of service and supply to which you have rightly become accustomed. Fortunately, due to the efforts of our dedicated and highly trained staff, we are glad to be able to announce, that this store will be open from:
Friday 7th January, 2000.
To enable us to work most effectively to overcome the very minor technical issues which we are facing, we have regretfully decided to temporarily restrict our opening hours. The temporary opening hours for this shop shall be:
Friday 7th January 10:00 Ė 12:00 14:00 Ė 15:00
Saturday 8th January Closed
Sunday 9th January Closed
Monday 10th January Closed
Tuesday 11th January 10:00 Ė 12:00 14:00 Ė 15:00
Wednesday 12th January Closed
Thursday 13th January 10:00 Ė 12:00 14:00 Ė 15:00
Friday 14th January 10:00 Ė 12:00 14:00 Ė 15:00
Customers may find that some of our normal product lines may be unavailable at certain times. We regret any inconvenience this may cause. We will keep you informed at all times about when we expect to be able to return to our normal level of service. Customers should also please note that, for the duration of this temporary and very minor technical problem, this store will not be able to process credit card or cheque transactions. All items must therefore be paid for in cash. A hand written receipt will be issued so that you may claim your Bonuscard points when we have resolved these minor technical issues,
Sam Bernardin o
Someone, presumably Sam, had scribbled a hasty signature under the text. It was sellotaped to the inside of the door. I stood, open mouthed, part of a soggy quartet that had grouped around the main entrance, and re-read the letter.
"Sure uses "minor" a lot. That means theyíre well and truly buggered" said one of my companions, with the knowing whine of an IT man.
"Yeah! And by the looks of this timetable theyíre not going to have it fixed any time soon. If they havenít debugged it by now theyíll probably have to rewrite the whole thing. Daft Bastards!" said his mate, and they wandered off.
The third man sniffed, cursed under his breath, and turned away. I saw him the next day with a sheet of glass sticking out of his head, so he didnít last long, but it was through him that I eventually woke up to what was happening. "Bloody Bug" he muttered, as he turned away, and a dim and crepuscular light slowly dawned. I drove over to the other TESCO, about a mile and a half away, to check there. Donít ask me why there were two giant superstores belonging to the same company only a mile or so apart. Like little girls and butterflies and county council planning officers, the ways of FMCG Marketeers brooked no understanding. Just take my word for it, within two miles of where I am sitting now are the rusty remains of two equally large, equally burned-out TESCOs. At the second, in confirmation of my guess, there was an identical notice containing identical information. The only difference was that this one was signed by Peter Burra. The signature was equally scribbled.
On a hunch I drove up to the nearest Sainsburyís. Just as I arrived a small group at the door there started to shout at someone inside the building. I hurried up in time to see someone, perhaps the manager himself, finish sticking a familiar looking notice to the door. He hurried away. I pushed my way to the door and read the notice. It was actually a bit different, obviously written by someone else, though the information it imparted was the same. Sinisterly identical in fact. The opening hours were exactly the same as the other two stores. Clearly someone, somewhere, had been working very hard indeed. I went home for a ponder.
Thereís another old saying. Other, that is, than that old saying about society never being more than three meals from rebellion, which I donít think was ever really a saying as such, old or otherwise, but sounds like it should have been. This other old saying, which really is an old saying, said, "No news is good news." Iíve often thought that was pretty daft. Over the last two decades, no news has generally meant, ĎHeís deadí. In this particular instance however I decided it was more meaningful to reword it to "No news is no news." I had never really thought about it before, but it suddenly occurred to me that news is what we are told, it is not usually what we know. Thatís why itís news. The notices in the two TESCOs were clearly phrased to suggest that there was a problem at that store, a local technical problem which they were working to fix, locally. But this could hardly be true of two identical stores, side by side. It could certainly not be true of another store from a different company, which was, equally clearly, facing the same problem. So, I mused, what if in fact the same is true, for every single supermarket, all over the country. I laughed out loud. "Thatís ridiculous", I thought, "they couldnít keep that out of the news! Anyway, theyíve all got different systems, so the same bug canít have got to them all."
A still, small voice said, "Yep, but theyíve all got similar systems doing the same things and probably written by the same people. They could have similar problems, from similar bugs. Someone is coordinating getting the supermarkets open again, making sure that they all reopen, at the same time, for the same hours. Smells like government to me, so it must be serious."
"Well OK, but they still couldnít keep it out of the news."
I paused. Good question. No newspapers. Pretty thin news on the box. Mostly about Blair at the Millennium Dome, Thatcher at the Millennium Dome, Richard at the Millennium Dome (Sir Cliff that is, not Branson). Even Pierce Brosnan at the Millennium Dome, in his 007 persona, upholding that most venerable of British film traditions, the Bond movies, and supporting the government in the greatest piece of product-placement since the Titanic went down. Almost everyone, it appeared, was at the Millennium Dome, other than paying customers of course, and good old Gordy Brown, who was manfully sticking to his post, piloting his leaky economic tanker through the treacherous waters of political and economic tides, currency currents, fiscal floes, monetary monsoons and Sorosian corsairs. The fact that he was rapidly going down with his ship was somehow omitted, but he clearly could not find the time to visit the Millennium Dome, jolly fine though it well may be.
"But even if itís not in the news, everyone still knows that their shop isnít open, and theyíll very quickly find out that none of them are open. And soon everyone will know."
"So what? If itís not on the news, itís not news. It might be mutterings in the pub, it might be grumbles in the street, it might be gossip over the garden-fence, but it is not news."
"But why would they even try to keep a thing like that quiet?"
"To avoid panic."
"Look. The supermarkets have been closed for a week now. People are starting to run out of things, and all the little shops are too, and very few new supplies are coming in. Thatís OK around here where most of us bought heaps of stuff before the New Year, just-in-case. Well, this is the case that we bought it just-in for. The shops arenít open, there is no food. In other places perhaps, they didnít buy so much. Maybe people are starting to get hungry. Maybe theyíre already rioting and looting, trying to get food for their hungry children."
"Donít be ridiculous. Weíre no where near that kind of problem."
"Oh Yeah! How do you know that?
"It would have been on the nÖÖ.?"
"News? Right? Itís not on the news so it isnít happening. Bullshit. The closed supermarkets arenít on the news either. So?"
"Well, theyíll be open tomorrow, and it might be a bit of a problem for a week or so because of the restricted hours, but theyíll sort it out, and weíll be OK again."
"You believe that?"
"You really believe that?"
As you will have gathered, as this internal discussion proceeded, the still, small voice graduated into a highly-mobile, cast-a-shadow-in-your-face kind of voice. I was worried. Not very worried, just a bit worried. Just worried enough. I tried again to phone an old friend of mine who worked on the Times, to see what he had heard and to find out when the papers were coming out again. I had tried him at home and in his office several times over several days and never managed to get him. His office said they were closed for the holiday period and his home phone was on voice-mail. I had left messages, but to no avail. I decided to try him again on his home number, figuring heíd be there rather than in town. I picked up the phone to call him. This time there was no dial tone.
"Sífunny" I thought. "It was working yesterday!"
And so it had been. Now admittedly, yesterday I hadnít actually got through to anyone, but I did get a message saying "This is a New Year message from British Telecom. Due to the very high level of demand at this time of year, we are temporarily unable to complete your connection as dialled. Please try again later. You have not been charged for this call. Happy New Year and welcome to the new Millennium." I had tried again a bit later, and got the same message, and I was going to try again, very late on, after Return of the Jedi (The Special Edition) but realised that everyone would be in bed and that I was drunk, so I didnít bother. And now my phone seemed to have died.
I also tried him from my mobile, but kept on getting "The subscriber you have dialled may be switched off, Please try again later." I didnít work-out until later, that this was a bit odd, seeing that I was dialing a land-line. A few hours later I picked it up to try again, but this time it said "No Service" and only beeped at me annoyingly. "Hmm!" I mused, and quiescently switched it off.
Everyone had been worried a little bit about the Millennium Bug. Or maybe a little bit more than a little bit. Hence the hoarding and the cash problems. But, when the world woke up that Saturday afternoon, 1/1/00, and everything seemed normal, and there was no news of catastrophes, and the kettles were boiling and the water was heating, and the telly was working; and the phones were working so well and were so busy that you just couldnít get through, well everything seemed to have passed off OK. People said, "I told you that Bug thing was a pile of nonsense, Letís have another beer."
Some of the smart ones started worrying about the size of their credit card bills that month, which they had kind of half hoped might get eaten by the Bug in some computer somewhere. The really smart ones, or at least the semi-sober ones, were worried about the social and economic aftermath of the huge cash and credit boom that had gone before. "Maybe everyone will put all their cash back into the banks now, and the problem will go away?" they conjectured, hopefully and hopelessly.
And the really, really smart ones said nothing, but sat back and waited. The signs were there, but most of us were too eager to see normality. We were admiring our new Millennium, and we couldnít see the abyss that had opened at our feet. We saw it a few days later though, when we all fell in.
Before I tell you about the events of that first Friday in the New Year, about the Great TESCO Food Fight. I would like to fill you in on the background of those days and tell you what had happened: to the shops, the papers, the news, the phones, the power, the water. And the petrol stations, and the banks and everything. And, amazingly enough, I am in a position to do exactly that.
"How!" I hear you clamour, "How can a hack writer from a hick town, who didnít even realise that the Bug was to blame for the supermarket problems and the phone problems, and all the bloody problems, how can he tell us all about what went wrong when the Bug ate the world?"
Well, if youíll shut up and stop clamouring for a while, Iíll tell you.
As you will discover, when I finally get around to it, I did not fare well at "TFF Friday" as we old contemptibles who were there liked to call it. Farewell, indeed, was closer to the mark. Over three hundred people died that afternoon, at that store, and many more died "as a result of their injuries" within the next week or so. They would mostly have died anyway, so itís no big deal, and the fact that I am probably the sole survivor from amongst those who were injured that day, is no big deal either. I still find it remarkable that I survived at all, and sometimes I regret it. Bitterly. But at least it has given me the opportunity to write this account and to tell you the tale of The Dying Consultant.
Copyright © Jock Howson 1999
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