Wednesday, 29 July 2009


It's odd to reflect that for very many years, until about the age of 40, I had never actually held an umbrella. Somewhere along the line, I had absorbed the idea that an umbrella was not something a proper man of our background could ever use. If it rained, a working man sought shelter, adjusted his hat, or simply got wet. As our gym teacher used to shout, when any boy seemed reluctant to turn out in the rain for a cross-country run or an afternoon of rugby: "You're not going to melt, lad! What are you made of, meringue? " Once the days of hats had passed, even to pull up an anorak hood was an admission of wimpishness, if not an act of Bowie-esque gender ambiguity.

Of course, because a degree of calculated campness was allowed and encouraged in "gentlemen," an accessory like an umbrella used to have a certain liminal potency. Experimenting with such things marked you out as an aspirant to the condition of a gentleman. Or as homosexual: it is almost impossible to exaggerate the bafflement and suspicion British men of working and lower middle class extraction once displayed towards the manners and behaviour of British men of upper middle class and aristocratic origin, and especially popular entertainers who adopted the gentlemanly manner. "But he can't be married with kids, he's obviously a poof!" This unsubtle attitude to sexuality in the British male went alongside (but never hand in hand with) an astonishment that women might prefer a well-spoken, clean, attractively-dressed individual over some hyper-masculine oaf with a horror of mirrors and soap, a blind spot much exploited by cads and bounders over the years.

But, back to the umbrellas. When I started to tire of either wearing an unseasonal coat or arriving at work soaked to the skin, I gradually began to see the possible benefits of a device designed both for portability and keeping you dry. (I think "Duh!" is the appropriate response). The first time I took one out for a spin was a revelation. The thing was alive. Far from being some static appendage, it lifted and tugged at your hand like a kite. In gusty conditions, it could take considerable effort to keep it under control. You also had to be alert to the direction and angle of the rain, not to mention oncoming pedestrians. But, well handled, it actually did keep you dry.

Some of my pre-umbrella attempts at keeping dry
were, in retrospect, a little OTT

So, I became an umbrella enthusiast. I own a number of them now. My prize umbrella is a golf-sized storm-proof item, which won't turn inside out in the strongest winds, due to its cunning construction and ultra-strong materials. Unfortunately, due to my lack of height and its capaciousness, it does make me look rather like a stripey mushroom. Also, in a strong gust the wet safety panels tend to blow out with a spectacular farting noise, which can be startling. My backup for emergency use, permanently stowed in my backpack, is an ultra-feeble collapsible job which I won in a raffle, and which will turn inside out if I breathe on it too heavily, never mind in a moderate wind.

The River Test in Early Summer Rain

But there's more to umbrellas than keeping dry, of course. They create their own style. You can't help but look a bit of a fool with a half-collapsed folding umbrella dangling from your wrist like a dead bird, and you certainly can't walk down the street with three foot of pointy stick under your arm or slung over a shoulder without adopting a certain atavistic swagger. If you're even a little bit of a fantasist it easily becomes a sword or a rifle, and your stroll down the high street morphs into "cheery tommies march whistling up the road to Ypres" or a scene from, say, The Duellists.

Back in 1980 I lived for a year in London, and I'd often pass James Smith & Sons in Bloomsbury on my way to University College. Check out that venerable umbrella maker's window, which also advertises "life preservers, dagger canes, and swordsticks"; the association of umbrellas and weaponry is not entirely fantasy. In my pre-umbrella days, I used to wonder what would happen if you crept up behind a City gent and yelled, "On guard!" Now I think I know. Please don't do it.


Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...

Umbrellas are fine, but you have to hold them. Hats, broad brimmed hats, keep the water off the glasses, the camera, provide shade, and probably about the same "dork" equivalence as a "bumbershoot". Bumbershoot????


Mike C. said...

This site has a special fondness for silly hats, Bron, obviously, but I like to give all idiotic accessories a fair go.

The trick with umbrellas and cameras is to have someone else hold the umbrella, though I have had (limited) success with jamming the handle under an armpit.

I admit I had to look "bumbershoot" up!

Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...

My current silly hat of choice is the Tilley Endurable:,
though I have various hats and caps.

I can see that a "self-mobile, voice activated" umbrella holder would be of great value when photographing.

Curious, as I always thought of bumbershoot as specifically English.


Mike C. said...

A hat with an owner's manual? Now that's something I've not seen before. The British equivalent would probably be Barbour, as worn by all huntin', shootin' & fishin' aristocrats, from Her Maj on down.

No, "bumbershoot" is not English, though there's an interesting discussion here of the word which attributes the link in the American mind to a song from the film Mary Poppins. Dick Van Dyke's accent in that film is a source of hilarity in Britain, and of course all the songs are written by the American Sherman brothers.

Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...

Well, you lives and you learns.

Thanks for the link to "bumbershoot". As to the hat with an owners manual, it's made by a Canadian outfit, so for many from the states, just a step away from British.

My silly hat for winter is a red "Stormy Kromer".

Kent Wiley said...

I'm an idiotic hat man myself, since I need the bald pate protection in both the summer and the winter, but alas I found myself carrying a large red & white Canon freebee umbrella recently when it was too hot for a coat or a hat. Of course it didn't rain, so it remained perched on my shoulder for the evening. Doubt it's going to be a frequent thing: very hard to work with your hands while holding an umbrella, and tough to get the "self-mobile, voice activated" stand to follow me around a job site. Hell - it rains, we go work inside.

Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...

I, too, have many problems with the self-mobile, voice activated umbrella supports; they all seem to take great pleasure in telling me to, whats the British term, "naf off"?

Mike C. said...

In the interests of trans-Atlantic understanding (but at the risk of being boring):

"Naff off" is a curious example of how language and popular culture feed off each other (or perhaps how language eats itself). Although the word "naff" has its origins in Polari (British gay slang), to the best of my knowledge the expression "naff off" was invented purely as a printable substitute for "fuck off" (I believe in Barry Hines' book "A Kestrel For A Knave" -- later a classic film by Ken Loach). It then gained exposure in the 70s through its use by the main character in the prime-time TV comedy "Porridge", and then fashionability (?) in the 80s through its use by Princess Anne to a group of bothersome photographers.

So, I suppose it's the sort of thing someone like Sarah Palin would say, with the advantage that it sounds quite obscene. And, of course, the Polari origin of "naff" (something like "normal as fuck") gives it an edge most users are unaware of.

As to photography in the rain, this is something I've grown increasingly fond of -- there's a richness and softness to the colours you never get at any other time, and it's worth looking like a freak with an umbrella growing out of one armpit to get the pictures! Somehow a hat would be cheating, though I could be tempted by one of those "Smoky Bear" scout hats ...

Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...


Thanks for the language lesson. Fascinating how rapidly language and culture "spread", and what the interwebs is doing to the process.

A harness to hold a light stand umbrella clamp; Bogen/Manfrotto, probably has one.


Mike C. said...

Well, if you can't "bloviate" (an American word I've seized on with enthusiasm) on your own blog, where can you?

I think the real answer for rainy day photography is a proper underwater camera, which is what Martin Parr used for his "Bad Weather" photographs.

Adam Long said...

I've always 'known' that naff is an acronym for 'not available for fucking'. I was told it originated in war-time/ military slang, though Polari sounds possibly more likely.

Mike C. said...

Adam, I think you may well be right on the origin of "naff" (it accounts for the extra eff!), though I think it does only makes sense in a gay context, esp. given the transfer of primary meaning to "in poor taste". Ironic, perhaps, that "gay" itself has started to become a synonym for "feeble, not very good", whilst "naff" is now mainly used by the Daily Mail brigade.

Mind, these things are always complicated -- one day I'll post on the origin(s) of the word "wally" (as in "he's a bit of a wally"), which I think you have to be nore-or-less exactly my age (55) to truly understand!

Kent Wiley said...

A pretty informative article about Polari is found on Wikipedia, and it's largely Italian origins. All news to me... How did we get from umbrellas to gay/theatre/carnival/marine jargon anyway? Always interesting journeys taking place here, Mike.

Mike C. said...

One really extraordinary thing is that most Brits over 50 know a lot of Polari without realising it. There was a brilliant radio show "Round the Horne" which used to be broadcast in the mid 60s on the BBC Home Service at Sunday lunchtime -- peak family listening. It regularly featured two camp men ("Hello, I'm Julian and this is my friend Sandy") who spoke a stream of hilarious double entendres peppered with Polari. How they got away with I have no idea.