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The Lord of the 24 Umbrellas And Other Tales of Brolliology

WHAT do Robinson Crusoe, the Maharajah of Nagpur, and Queen Victoria have in common? Not to mention Mary Poppins and Miss Savage. (Miss who?? Read on...) The answer - depending, perhaps, on where you come from - is a brolly (British), a bumbershoot (American), a parapluie (French), a Regenschirm (German), a higasa (Japanese) or even an akurompokyiniwa (Ashanti).

Of course some rather boring people just use the word "umbrella."

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The odd thing about the word "umbrella" - the usual English- speaking name for the thing people open up over their heads to keep the rain off their toes (and other parts of them as well) - is that it really means something to protect you from the sun.

Umbrellas have been around for more than 3,000 years, and it seems that to begin with they were what we now call "sunshades," or parasols. They were used in hot countries. Ladies, particularly, who wanted to have unsunburned skin, fancied them, because for some reason they thought unsunburned skin made them look excruciatingly beautiful.

And highly important people, like kings and courtiers and popes, got the idea that umbrellas made them look even more important. They owned them and showed them off the way people do today with private yachts and Porsches. The bigger the umbrella, the better. They could be 15 feet high and 6 feet wide. The larger the number of umbrellas these personages had, the more they impressed people; sometimes they even passed laws saying nobody else in their land was allowed to use umbrellas on pain of death. Suc h potentates sometimes measured their power in umbrellas. One, in the ancient empire of Burma, was actually called "king of the white elephants and lord of the 24 umbrellas."

Some of these old ceremonial umbrellas were tremendously heavy - but that was all right because there was always a special slave or courtier available to trundle along behind carrying them over his master's head.

I'm glad I never had that job to do: I find it hard enough on a windy day to control my own small, modern model. Have you ever had an umbrella suddenly turn inside-out on you? Ghastly. Not only do you get instantly soaked, but you have to twirl about the place like a demented bat trying to make the wind gather inside it again and turn it back outside-in. Not easy. And sometimes impossible. And for some reason you feel terribly silly.

It's like a horse galloping away with you. Suddenly the splendid control you had is completely shattered and you realize you are not quite as clever as you thought you were. With umbrellas it's worst of all because - I don't really know why - umbrellas are one of those things that can't help being rather funny. There are other things like that - bananas and ducks and tricycles and (let's face it) boys called Clarence and girls called Claribel. Unless of course that's your name... or it's your umbrella t hat's turned inside out.

Umbrellas are rather primitive contraptions. They look as if they have just been invented. This may be because they are a rather basic idea that hasn't changed much for centuries. But few things are more complicated-looking than an umbrella murdered unexpectedly by a gust of wind. On a bad day, street corners can be littered with defunct umbrellas. Their drowning owners have abandoned them in hasty despair. Of course that doesn't account for the hundreds who have simply flown away, bumbershoot and all, never to be seen again....

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Which reminds me, for some reason, about Mary Poppins's umbrella.

I suspect that P. L. Travers, who wrote the Poppins books, has a great affection for umbrellas. Apart from Mary's own famous one, under which she flies away, there is at least one other notable example. In one chapter the children go to meet Mary's cheerful uncle, Mr. Wigg, who turns out to be so full of laughing gas that he has floated up to the ceiling and can't get down. The children catch the laughing gas, too, and up they go to join him. The tut-tutting nanny finally gives in and up she comes as we ll, plus the table and the coconut cakes. And they all have tea.

But before Mary Poppins deigned to join them, they had tried to get down. They had to think of something sad! But nothing they could think of seemed sad. Not even going to school. Not even growing up.

Then the uncle had an idea: " 'There was my poor Aunt Emily,' thought Mr. Wigg out loud. 'She was run over by an omnibus. Sad. Very sad. Unbearably sad. Poor Aunt Emily. But they saved her umbrella. That was funny, wasn't it?' And before he knew where he was, he was heaving and trembling and bursting with laughter at the thought of Aunt Emily's umbrella."

I suppose one reason umbrellas are funny is that some people take them terribly seriously. There was a time when the British business man simply wasn't properly dressed unless he carried a neatly furled black umbrella. It wasn't really to keep the rain off; it was so he looked right.

Of course it does rain quite a lot in Britain, so brollies (the study of umbrellas, by the way, is called "brolliology") have their uses here. In fact, it is extraordinary that umbrellas caught on in this country rather later than in "foreign parts."

It was because they were considered odd. At first people who dared to use them were considered eccentric, absurd, and effeminate. This was probably because parasols for women - sunshades, described by one writer as "something of the fashion of tin covers for dishes" - were popular earlier.

It was a philanthropist called Jonas Hanway who "was the first man who ventured to walk the streets of London with an umbrella over his head." He was a brave man.

Street urchins jeered at him. People gaped. The London coachmen were outraged - the umbrella looked like a serious threat to their livelihood. And Mr. Hanway was accused of trying to defy the "heavenly purpose of rain" which was, of course, to make people wet! But he went on using his umbrella for 30 years, and by then it had at last become popular in Britain. For some time umbrellas were even known as "Hanways."

Since then umbrellas have become perfectly normal things for anyone to own and use, and although they can come in all kinds of different colors and patterns, they are still pretty much umbrellas at heart.

O what about Robinson Crusoe and Queen Victoria and company?

Crusoe, shipwrecked for years on a desert island, made himself an umbrella, after several failed attempts, that "answered indifferently well." It was "covered with skins, the hair upwards."

Queen Victoria had some of her umbrellas - or parasols at least - lined with chain-mail after an assassination attempt.

The Maharajah of Nagpur's umbrella was magnificent - it had sixteen ribs (eight is more usual) and was covered with silk and decorated with gold and silver ornaments.

As for Miss Savage. Well, she was a genteel Victorian lady who carried on a 14-year correspondence with the author Samuel Butler. In 1882, Butler lost his umbrella. (That, as well as being stolen, is often the fate of the humble brolly: In 1957, records show, 70,000 of them were left on London's trains and buses. I have lost a fair number myself.)

Miss Savage, on a postcard, did her best to comfort friend Butler by writing: "... I dare say you will get it back. My umbrellas always come back persistently. I have never been able to lose one, and when one, by reason of its infirmities, has become unbearable, I have to cast it loose upon society at dead of night, or pitch it into the river. There is one of my umbrellas floating to this day in the Bay of Biscay. I set in floating down the Vilaine in the year '67. It was seen only the year before last. "

And as for Mary Poppins - well, you know all about her. The only question is, where has she, and her umbrella with the parrot-shaped handle, gone to?

'Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will tickle imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles will appear twice a month, always on Tuesday.

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