The Big Read: Hail fellow, brolly well met

14 July 2017 - 07:26
File photo.
File photo.
Image: iStock

1. The other day it was nearly raining and on my walk I passed a man carrying an umbrella. It wasn't the umbrella that surprised me, but how he carried it: horizontal to the ground, clutched in the middle as though it were a long thin suitcase. It made me sad. That is a man, I thought, with no poetry in his soul. If I had a daughter, I would not want her to date a man who does not understand the joy of striding jauntily, brolly in hand, clacking it on the ground like a dandy's cane, pointing it to the clouds and the horizon like a long wizard's wand, twirling it like a steel-tipped six-shooter, slashing the air like a cutlass, assaying imaginary cover drives with a U-handled cricket bat. I can't help it: I find myself judging men by how they handle an umbrella.

2. Once when I was 10 years old and very concerned about what it meant to be a boy and one day be a man, my mother made me leave the house with an umbrella. I don't know that I had ever actually heard the guys at school make fun of a boy using an umbrella, but that's because it had never before happened, and when you're a kid growing up on the Bluff you have a nose for danger. On the Bluff, protecting yourself from the rain was like wearing shoes after school: girls did it, so boys did not.

I tried to hide the umbrella down my trouser leg but it made me walk stiff-legged like a pirate. It started to rain so I thought it would be safe to carry it in the open: even if someone saw me with it, they'd see it was still furled. Surely common sense would prevail: they couldn't possibly suspect me of sheltering beneath an unopened umbrella. But sense and sensitivity sounds like a Jane Austen novel, and Jane Austen was not read by 10-year-old boys on the Bluff. I was spotted with the umbrella, and I tried to tell them that I'd found it beside the road and was carrying it home for my mother but they didn't believe me. For the rest of the year blunt and unfriendly and decidedly pre-2017 questions were asked about my gender alignment. Some of the girls at school tried to defend me, saying that it was very sensible to use an umbrella in the rain, and that made it worse.

3. Before the 1750s, Englishmen did not use umbrellas. Women did, but they are women. Frenchmen did, but they are French. It took a stubborn, eccentric soul named Jonas Hanway to make the difference. He returned to London from a visit to Paris and brought an umbrella with him . When it rains, he thought, why should I not take portable shelter?

Hanway had many other pioneering ideas. He opposed the practice of tipping in restaurants - he has my vote there - but also advocated to ban the drinking of tea, which is odd, and argued for the social benefit of solitary confinement for prisoners, which seems mean. He was also regrettably opposed to Jews becoming naturalised citizens, but I think we all prefer to remember him as the first man to carry an umbrella.

Eighteenth-century England sounds a lot like the Bluff in the 1980s. Whenever Hanway ventured out under moving cover he was met by a chorus of boos and jeers and taunts. What perfumed ponce is this, the other pedestrians wanted to know. What effeminate Frog? Passers-by pelted him with fruit and clods of earth and chamberpots were emptied on him, but the most violent protests came from cab drivers. Rainy weather was good for business if you drove a hansom cab, and Hanway was inadvertently proposing the first model of economic disruption to the transportation industry. Hanway was Uber, and the cab drivers were still the cab drivers. When physical threats and intimidation didn't work, one cabman tried to run him down in the street. History records that Hanway, incensed and undaunted, furled his brolly tightly and "gave the man a good thrashing".

For ages Jonas Hanway was the only man in England to use an umbrella, but eventually the tide turned. For a time umbrellas were commonly known as Hanways. As the fashion radiated out from London, each small town and village preserved in the years to come a memory of the first brave local soul to try it out: each small town had its own Hanway carrying a Hanway.

4. I once told a friend about my complicated feelings about umbrellas. She listened and then said: "I thought you guys made life hard for us, but my God, you make it just as hard for yourselves."