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.