~ Posted by Charles Nevin, August 31st 2012

One of the more prominent features of this sodden British summer has been the umbrella, unfurled incessantly against the inclemency, and, moreover, starring in the opening ceremonies of both the Olympics and Paralympics. The latter is a reminder that the umbrella is unequalled in instantly conjuring the British character in nearly all of its aspects, including the comic, the cautious and the class-conscious, and as such has been utilised to fine effect by writers as various as Dickens (Mrs Gamp in “Martin Chuzzlewit”), Defoe (“Robinson Crusoe”), P.L. Travers (“Mary Poppins”) and Brian Clemens (John Steed in “The Avengers”).

Its adoption and popularity here is at once surprising and not. Obviously, and particularly recently, it does rain quite a lot; but why a country which has prided itself on no-nonsense practicality should take to such a fussy piece of equipment rather than rely on hat and cape is not immediately clear.

After all, it’s difficult to imagine those brave British forbears at, say, Agincourt carrying them (the longbow men in particular would have got in quite a tangle). Against that, though, is the example of Major Allison Digby Tatham-Warter at Arnhem, who carried one throughout the engagement because, as he explained, he could never remember passwords and the umbrella would make it perfectly clear he was British. The key here, I think, is that much proclaimed but elusive native quality, eccentricity. Nevertheless, the Major disabled an enemy armoured car on at least one occasion by poking his umbrella through a slit and blinding the driver.

Even so, Jonas Hanway, the umbrella’s popularizer in Britain, did not have an entirely easy ride with his novel contraption, having to endure “the contemptuous gestures of his shocked compatriots” as he strolled about London. It evidently cut no ice that he had come across the umbrella among rebellious and quite violent tribesmen in Persia. (Interestingly, some years ago, I encountered a Kurdish guerilla opposed to rule from Tehran who, in addition to his Kalashnikov and bandolier, also carried a shortie umbrella tucked into his belt.)

But, despite such heroes as Major Tatham-Warter and John Steed, the umbrella has continued to have problems. For what impulsive, devil-may-care fellow takes an umbrella out with him in case of rain? What is prudence among women is pathetic among men. Not even Bulgarian brollies with poisoned tips have countered the image. I suspect, for one, that Hanway has left a long shadow: he was also a campaigner, writer and prolific pamphleteer who has been described as “one of the most indefatigable and splendid bores of English history”.

And, of course, there’s class. Not a working man’s implement, exactly. Even here, though, and as usual, you have to be careful with the nuances. A friend of mine (employing an umbrella, as it happens) once encountered a grand acquaintance dressed in tweed hurrying to his London home through torrential rain, and rather wet. “Why,” asked my friend, pointing to his own, “no umbrella?” The man looked shocked. “What, with country clothes?!” I, however, shall continue to use, and fairly often lose, one, fortified by a fine remark from Major Tatham-Warter when a comrade counselled caution against a concerted mortar attack: “Don’t worry, I’ve got an umbrella.”

Charles Nevin is a frequent contributor to Intelligent Life, who spent 25 years on Fleet Street. He is the author of “The Book of Jacks”

Photograph: the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games (Getty)