Ben Schott's diary: Travels with a magic umbrella

Plus: surgeon's cuffs and souls in transit

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

Flying home to New York, I noticed a disturbing innovation in pre-flight cabin announcements. After the welcomes, exhortations, and promotions the purser itemised the number of passengers (205) and crew (12) on board. Presumably, this is for the ‘black box’ recorder — so the correct complement of dental charts can be assembled should gravity win. But the broadcast concluded in a startlingly metaphysical manner. ‘So,’ she said cheerfully, ‘that’s 217 souls on board.’ Taxiing for takeoff is a disconcerting moment to contemplate the existence of souls, let alone enumerate them. (Do they count pets in the hold? Children in utero? Makers of Faustian pacts?) And it reminded me of William Gibson’s crisply cool novel Pattern Recognition, where he defines jet lag as the time it takes for the soul to catch up with the body: ‘Souls can’t move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage.’

In my luggage, thankfully not lost, was a new $90 jacket from the Japanese mega-brand Uniqlo. I was delighted to discover this garment had a ‘surgeon’s cuff’ where the sleeve buttons are sewn into functioning buttonholes so the cuffs can be rolled back. (Cheaper sleeves, for non-surgeons, are stitched permanently closed.) Traditionally, this labour-intensive ‘working cuff’ was a hallmark of the bespoke suit (along with trouser side-adjusters, louche linings, and idiosyncratic ticket pockets). Indeed, flâneurs have long flaunted their bespokery by ostentatiously unbuttoning their cuffs — like the old maître d’ at Odette’s in Primrose Hill, whose suit sleeves flapped like fabric bats. My curiosity piqued, I did some research. A $2,500 Ralph Lauren tuxedo had no working cuff, nor did a $4,200 Brunello Cucinelli suit. Indeed, the suits I bespake some years ago from a tailor in Soho have four-button cuffs, only half of which ‘work’. Clearly Uniqlo has a machine that can mass-produce surgeon’s cuffs. Your move, Jermyn Street.

Speaking of gentlemen’s accoutrements: I’ve just been reunited with my magic umbrella for the fourth time in a decade. Hewn from oak by Swaine Adeney Brigg, this umbrella was a wildly generous 30th-birthday present from my old friend (and mutual best man) Aster Crawshaw. It was almost immediately purloined from the cloakroom of Joe Allen’s in Covent Garden. I mentioned this in an interview I gave to the Daily Telegraph, and was amazed to receive an email from Swaine Adeney Brigg offering me a replacement. All was well for several years until I realised the umbrella was again missing. I had no memory of the last time I’d carried it. Too bereft to buy a replacement, many umbrella-less months passed until, one night, I was in a minicab on the way home from supper with my brother. ‘My friend, I remember you!’ the driver exclaimed, ‘I think maybe you left an umbrella in my car last year?’ So I did. And it was delivered back to me the next day. I don’t consider myself especially lucky, but when a few years later the umbrella vanished from the lobby stand at the Connaught, I left my number with the porter, serenely confident it would be returned. And it was. After five hours. With a note of apology so profuse it could have been written by E.M. Forster’s umbrella-rustling Helen Schlegel. The most recent loss occurred on a train to Salisbury. Because Aster had presciently asked for my name to be engraved on the brolly’s brass collar, a splendid employee of South West Trains was able to Google my email and arrange for collection. I’m now torn between never taking the umbrella out of the house again, or hurling it into the sea to discover just how magical it really is.

My latest tango with transatlantic jetlag is almost at an end, but I’m still awake, wired and tired at 3 a.m. I find myself pondering whether there are any truly new human emotions — or just variations mediated by technology. My latest book, Schottenfreude, involved devising German neologisms to describe sensations for which English has no word. In the footnotes I explored the timelessness and universality of the human condition. You might think ‘pretending you haven’t been accidentally spat on in conversation’ (Speichelgleichmut) is modern, but Samuel Pepys did exactly this on 28th January 1661. And, there’s nothing new about ‘feigning sleep to avoid unwanted sexual intimacy’ (Dornhöschenschlaf), which appears in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from c. 1380. So is anything we feel nowadays genuinely new? Is the dopamine pulse of a text message any different from a Jane Austen heroine tearing open a letter? Is the dread of nuclear Armageddon any different to fear of a wrathful god? Jet lag might be new, or it might be a version of shift-work-induced insomnia. I’ll let you know if and when my soul catches up with me.

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Ben Schott is the author of the Schott’s Miscellanies and Schott’s Almanac series.

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  • seangrainger

    Good column Mr S but no gentleman would comment thus because of course all his grandfather’s suit jackets had proper button cuffs. And The Boys in Napoli were doing this decades before the Japanese. But hey, it’s Christmas …

  • Hamburger

    I wonder if the author realises that title means enjoyment of the Scots. He is obviously a unionist.