Class conscious - Andrew Martin looks dapper in his new boiler suit
I hoped the boiler suit would make me look like a tousle-haired car mechanic
It was early on Saturday evening, with chilly autumnal weather and the tang of burning leaves in the air. As I cycled past the park, some boys began a football game, one of them giving the venerable shout, "Rush goalies!", meaning that anyone could use their hands when close to the goal line. Sometimes, I reflected, north London is almost like the north of England.
I had spent all day fixing my bike, attaching a lock to our side gate and pulling up old tomato plants; I had the warm, tingly feeling of those who do manual work not more than about once a month. But I had also ruined a good pair of M&S cords, and in doing so, the decision had crystallised: I would go off on my bike to that fascinating utility clothes shop a couple of miles away, and I would buy myself a boiler suit.
I walked into the shop, saying: "I would like a boiler suit." "What for, exactly?" asked the assistant suspiciously. "For doing jobs about the house," I said. "I also do some work on steam engines sometimes," I went on, not completely gratuitously. "Are you sure you don't want a warehouse coat?" asked the man, holding up something that demanded to be worn with a top pocket full of pens and a clipboard in hand. It made me look a tyrant of the shop floor, whereas I wanted something with rank-and-file cred. It had to be a pretty colour, though.
The first boiler suit proffered by the manager was white. I put it on and asked if there was a mirror. There was, in an obscure corner of the shop, and I walked over to it, wondering how normal it is to look in the mirror when buying a boiler suit. Fortunately, the manager was distracted just at that moment by a man who walked in, asking, "Have you got any iron-toecap boots in a ten, mate? My boy's starting work on Monday." I was thus able to have a good long stare at myself . . .
I looked like somebody making a court appearance for terrorist offences.
After a few minutes, the man had bought his boots, and the assistant wandered over, asking (possibly with suppressed amusement): "Any good, then?" I had decided that there must be some excellent reason for manufacturing boiler suits in a colour that would show every speck of dirt they brushed against - perhaps they were for painters who specialised in applying white paint - so I just said: "It's OK, but do you have any others?"
The manager then produced a boiler suit in a very pleasant shade of indigo. I put it on, hoping that I would look like the handsome, tousle-haired car mechanic who'd worked at the local Esso station when I was a kid; or the fitter who lived at the end of our road, who was never keen to be spotted in his working clothes (a blue boiler suit with shirt and tie underneath), even though he always looked quite fetching in them.
I did not, as it turned out, but it was an improvement on the white. "You've got your concealed press studs on the front," said the manager, ". . . rule pocket down the side there." Was he taking the mickey?
I was finally swayed by a word on the boiler suit's label: "traditional". "I'll take it," I said. It was £11, which proved to me that this was a proper working man's shop, because boiler suits often cost twice that. "Do you want a carrier bag?" asked the manager. "No thanks," I said, "I'll keep it on." Not many people have a good reason for wearing a boiler suit on a Saturday evening, but I hoped the shop manager would presume there was one in my case, as opposed to the genuine reason: narcissism. Perhaps, I reflected as the door closed behind me, he assumes I'm just going off to clock on for the night shift. It was unlikely, though, I had to admit.