Umbrellas are like love affairs

The sun is shining as I write, but I have learned not to trust it. As soon as I step outside, it will start raining. This generally seems to have been the pattern of things for the past couple of years. Indeed, if there were only one piece of advice I could give the separated man exiled from the family home, it would be: always carry an umbrella, because for some reason it is going to start raining on you a hell of a lot more than it used to.

Westron wynde, when wyll thou blow
The smalle rayne downe can rayne -
Cryst, yf my love wer in my armys
And I in my bed agayne!

Not that that is quite right - the poet would appear to be yearning for rain, only just not too much of it. Perhaps another quatrain is better:

The rain it raineth every day
Upon the just and unjust fella
But mainly on the just, because
The unjust hath the just's umbrella.

I did for some time have a very fine umbrella, which I had, I must confess, stolen - or, shall we say, picked up inadvertently. Normally the most honest of people, I am seized by a kind of giddy amorality when I attend a function somewhere terribly posh that I know I won't be going back to again. (I do hope the Norwegian* embassy doesn't do an inventory of its ashtrays at any point in the near future.)

The umbrella came, I think, from some newspaper do in one of the Pall Mall clubs, and was elegantly and classically simple: black, with a fine wooden handle and a surprisingly well-designed ferrule. (Lovely word, ferrule. I remember my old friend Jeremy Scott telling me how he had been shrieked at by a schoolmaster - this must have been in the 1950s - when he confessed to having caught a dose off some local girl: "You have put your person where I would not have put the ferrule of my umbrella!" Guess which public school he was at, at the time.)

The umbrella looked so classic in design that it could have been made at any time between 1900 and 1940, but it was not ostentatious. Having
a dismal track record when it comes to keeping umbrellas - if they were dogs, I would now be restrained by court order from keeping one -
I held on to this one through thick and thin.

Unfortunately, umbrellas, like love affairs, do not last for ever, however much you'd like them to, and after one particularly blustery day I was left waiting in the school playground for my youngest underneath a small triangle of tattered, flapping fabric, the bared spokes of the brolly splayed crazily over my drenched head, while small children cavorted around me as if I were, for all the world, like a silent film comedian suddenly made flesh. At least I had the consolation that I was making them laugh. The trick is to maintain a Buster Keaton-esque immobility of expression.

Old soak

So now I have to rely on the fold-up umbrella. This is too big to go in a pocket and the handle is too tight to fit on one's arm. Nothing ever goes right on this excrescence of a planet.

Still, it is at least reasonably well made (cf those free umbrellas that sometimes used to be given away with the Evening Standard and that disintegrated if you sneezed while holding them; a nice idea in theory, and probably one of the most English things a visitor to the city could expect to see in half a lifetime). And while it does not have one of those spring-loaded mechanisms that mean you can make it open at the touch of a button, it is, for my nine-year-old, pleasingly reminiscent of the dimensions of a sawn-off shotgun - though how he worked that out, I would rather not speculate.

In the meantime, I wonder if there were not some kind of metaphysical umbrella one could employ to ward off the worst effects of the vicissitudes of life that seem to come thicker and faster at one as the years progress. Oh wait, there is one - it's made in the Maclaren Vale district of Australia, and is available for £7.99 from Majestic Wine Warehouses, down to £4.99 if you buy more than two. Which I think I will.

* The nationality of the embassy has been changed to protect the guilty, ie, me

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Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains