“Give me the occasional luxury, and I will forgo the essentials.”

(T.E. Lawrence, in a letter to a friend in the 1930s sent from his exquisitely bespoke cottage, Clouds Hill)

I discovered the truth of Lawrence of Arabia’s dictum regarding luxuries over a couple of winters spent in a version of the African bush on the barely legal border between Senegal and The Gambia. Supplies were distant, cooking pretty miserable fare and undertaken by fire, and luxuries strictly limited. (The nearest Waitrose was several thousand miles away). I took a stash of fresh coffee and a metal cafetière. A pot shared around the fire in the morning was necessary and sufficient to make the other nuisances of the day tolerable.

It could have been a tin of peaches (a famous British Army obsession – one recruitment ad, as I recall, played on exactly this item, with the punchline “I don’t even like peaches”), or a down pillow, a lump of Parmigiano-Reggiano, Irish linen sheets washed over decades into a kind of silk, or some other luxurious whim. It just has to be a personally meaningful non-necessity, something that makes you feel that at least one of your choices prevails in a chaotic world – even if only for a while.

Humans, our frailties being ever with us, are – as we speak – busily humblebragging (a clumsy sub-set of Stephen Potter’s Gamesmanship, involving one-upmanship gambits, described in this Parish by Toby Guise) and suchlike, taking out the vanities for a trot even in a worldwide catastrophe. These demonstrations will inevitably include impressive Covid19 “emergency supply” dumps (expect “shelfies”); minor martyrdoms showing personal suffering on all our behalves; and strikingly virtuous actions urgently shared with friends and family. (Perhaps with a dwnward cast and flutter of the eyelashes suggesting “yes, it’s difficult, but we’re doing our bit.”) And, no doubt, in these trying times there will also be fashion. After all, without such displays, as Jane Austen astutely observed, we should be bored: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”

(I’m also pretty convinced that competitive bourgeois signalling is likely to attain near-Olympic levels of competition as the light lengthens, the spring is sprung, and summertime in England yawns its great Leonine mouth and breathes hot air into our lives.)

So, here are some of mine: I’m getting them in early.

Being a flighty sort and, like Autolycus, “born under Mercury, a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles”, and with a longstanding if grim fascination for human-induced Armageddon since my teenage years (I can supply a reading list), I was alert to the possibilities and tracking C19’s horrible progress from fairly early on. I was beginning to panic as to the wheres and whats and whens (if not the whys) as February did its sprint. By March I was a mad hare – pointlessly, but seriously and with gravid intent – twitching away at the etymological relations between panic, pandemics, and the god Pan – that goaty old Capricornus with his…ways.

Meanwhile, I frantically tried to compute a complex equation involving elderly self-isolating parents in one direction, an agreeable perch in Dorset with a fine friend in another, and life and the risks of cabin fever aboard my 1934 wooden M/Y. (Midshipmen and swabs are so hard to find these days).

I started ordering the necessary luxuries online: I can live on rice and beans and soup for months, and probably will, but the luxuries with which I compensate for my other sufferings while camping on water? Good God, I was expecting a run… Firstly on snuff, obviously, with the main dealers being Wilsons of Sharrow (my preference is Fribourg & Treyer’s Morlaix in the larger tin). I also snapped up a cotton gentleman’s snuff rag in a fetching blue pattern. Smoking will surely, finally, become utterly de trop, but snuff, the occasional cigar, and something called “vaping” still have legs, I reckon.

The medical cabinet is built around Thursday Plantation Tea Tree Oil – if it was good enough for ANZAC troops in the tropics in WW2, it’s good enough for me. Antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antifungal, it’s also compact, and wholly useful.

And, of course, there’s the single-estate hand-roasted coffee from Rwanda. (In 2004 I had the honour of providing some advice to their remarkable young and predominantly female leadership – all remaining hands on deck – and to H.E. Paul Kagame in the run-up to the genocide’s 10th Anniversary. My only contribution, apart from a wintry half-smile from Kagame when I gave him a complex Kigali “street handshake”, was to draw his attention to those stupendous verses in Ecclesiastes 3 (“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…”) Legendarily written by Solomon – although this is disputed: isn’t everything? – he found a use for some of it in his speech – at which the French diplomatic representatives, rather discourteously, flounced off.

The coffee comes from Black Mountain Roast, a start-up co-founded by my friend Mungo Leir, who died distressingly young in a castle he rented in Hay-on-Wye, and who enjoyed possession of (one of?) Evelyn Waugh’s cocktail shakers, and was a beloved man. I buy their coffee in near-industrial quantities because it’s absurdly excellent, reasonably priced, makes a perfect present, and in memory of this lovely man. Also, of course, because it’s now very much “the done thing” to support one’s local (or personally-special) boutique businesses in order to help them through this crisis. #ItsTheFashion

I had sufficient Marvis Jasmine Mint Toothpaste (distressingly, ‘a fashion forward fusion of flavor’ – and, although once utterly obscure, now available in Boots, of all places. One used to have to schlep to Liberty’s or unlikely corners of Italy). Undoubtedly the world’s finest toothpaste – “don’t @ me” as Da Yout say, unless you’re making a case for the fabulous Email Diamant – it offers a brief olfactory glimpse of heaven, and the packaging alone is a glory. (The other flavours are, clearly, rather lesser things).

I also had a decent stock-in-hand of hefty books in need of reading: Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light, Robert Tombs’ The English and Their History, Jerome’s Biblical Commentary, Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, Aurelius’s Meditations, Naimy’s Book of Mirdad – as well as wads of Look and Learn and The Wide World Magazine for Men.

And, of course, I was in possession of the technology – Star Trek transponders, essentially – with which to invite friends and family aboard, virtually, for a tour of my old lady, and who I found, upon paying the attention due when contemplating one’s berth for an extended trip, was clearly needful of as much care and love as could possibly be given, like all our old. I have started at the bow, where my already biohazardous (mildew; mould) bedroom is located, and am now surrounded by teetering piles of order indicating an intermediate stage on the road to being ship-shape.

Meanwhile, I’ve got the soup, donned the gloves, strapped on the military watch my father wore while an RAF pilot of some note, tuned into the definitive song of this event (“everybody knows the plague is coming, everybody knows that it’s moving fast”), and tuned out from most of my hitherto unhealthy social media habits. (#ItsTheTraining).

Analogue’s last tango with digital has commenced in what my father calls “slow time”. Amid the tears and distress, then, it’s a balm to be rememorying that, “With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”