Sunday, 21 November 2010


I remember how Nick Lowe, in his great and witty talk Black Wine of Thentis, told us that creative writers - and especially the typical authors of science fiction and fantasy - would sometimes find that their muse had failed and as a result they would frantically look around their horrible writer's den seeking inspiration. 

The author's eyes would light upon that constant to almost all writers: a cup of a warm, mildly stimulating beverage, usually coffee, and they would use this desperately, somehow, anyhow, to pad out the text and prod their narratives back into life.

Klatchian coffee.  Black wine.

In a more mundane vein, I do the same when I'm attempting to solve the crossword and I'm lost for inspiration.  I look around, seeking help anywhere.  Thankfully, the Guardian helps with short articles of interest, appropriate to the back page, alongside the grid.  Weatherwatch, Starwatch, Spacewatch.  Rarely dull. 

And, to be scrupulously honest, they rarely help directly with the crossword.

A week ago on Friday, Kate Ravilious wrote in Weatherwatch:
Umbrellas first emerged in dry, hot places, to provide protection from the hot sun. The word umbrella comes from the Latin word "umbra", meaning shade or shadow. It isn't clear where and when the very first umbrella was made, but evidence from India, China and Egypt indicate that umbrellas have been around for more than 4,000 years. The Chinese were the first people to make waterproof umbrellas, by waxing and lacquering the paper parasol cover. Eventually umbrellas caught on in the west, especially northern Europe, during the 16th century. Many of these umbrellas were made from wood or whalebone and had oiled canvas parasols.

Amazingly they didn't find favour in soggy Great Britain until the Restoration, in the late 17th century. Rumour has it that the Puritans' disapproved of such frivolous devices, which would prevent Heaven-sent rain from properly wetting a person.

However, when umbrellas did arrive in Great Britain, the unpredictable climate soon made them popular. Coffee houses started the fashion; providing umbrellas to shelter customers as they walked to their carriages. At first they were considered a woman's accessory, but when English traveller and philanthropist Jonas Hanway began to carry one during the mid 18th century, men began to adopt them too. By 1830 the UK had its first dedicated umbrella shop in London, and nowadays every British household usually has at least one umbrella.
Which was a piece I quietly enjoyed (despite the weakness of the last line about 'every British household'), but it put me in mind of a more political take on the brolly by Neil MacGregor, presented to staff at the British Museum a few years ago (I was staff then). 

He looked at images across cultures and history showing umbrellas and sunshades, and found that in an awful lot of them they were used to show a power relationship.  The servant shades the Lord or Queen,  protecting them from the elements while having no cover themselves.  From overlords in ancient middle-Eastern cultures reviewing grain harvests to 1930s politicians speaking at rallies in wet North-of-England  rain, the brolly shows who is important and who is not.

Now it would, I think, be perfectly possible to construct an argument that the BM, built in part upon the spoils of political power, still can't avoid probing and testing issues of power, morality and hierarchy, like a tongue testing out a rotten tooth.  While the Guardian article by contrast is more free, and about personal use - liberal without even thinking about it.  Aren't stereotypes wonderful?

However, I'm minded instead to think about the UK's "first dedicated umbrella shop" - that Ravilious mentions in her piece.  This is James Smith and Sons, established 1830 and still going strong in New Oxford Street.  An establishment brand, the tiniest of walking distances from the Museum.

And I have to say, at the time a few of us suspected it was the inspiration for the Director's talk. You can see how it might happen, inspiration briefly fails, not even the black wine helps, so you decide to nip out for a walk around the block to clear the mind and get the creative juices flowing again.  And the first thing you spot is...

Brollies.  That will do nicely.

(Of course, I'm writing this after a week off, when I haven't felt minded or inspired to post much at all.  So maybe this whole meander is just my version of Klatchian coffee...)

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