A guide to umbrella etiquette (for well-heeled Brits)

Old hand Christopher Howse and young gun Guy Kelly ponder the ins and outs of brolly usage

There is no need to carry an umbrella in London, as it seldom rains even in non-drought years, says Christopher Howse Credit: Ann Macleod

There is plenty about modern life to cause celebration and aggravation in equal measure... but it is never safe to make an assumption about how the different generations feel about anything from vegans to scented candles. In their latest look at the way we live now, our columnist duo consider the usefulness of umbrellas. 

‘Folding umbrellas invite a gust of wind to blow their spavined ribs inside-out. They are a pretence to being umbrellas, as trainers are to being shoes’

- Christopher Howse

Christopher Howse: 'Landline phones went to the bad when they were no longer black Bakelite with a fabric-covered flex and a dial that left an annular mark on the index finger'

‘Life Preservers. Dagger Canes. Swordsticks.’ I like the sound of those, any one of which would help clear the pavement-cloggers on my walk to work. I like the look too of those goods advertised in Victorian lettering on glass, with rustic initials like something contrived by the fanciful illustrator Dicky Doyle for Ruskin’s tale The King of the Golden River (a story creepily written for Effie Gray, aged 12, whom he married as soon as he could).

Anyway, that glorious offer of swordsticks decorates the windows of James Smith & Sons (founded 1830) at Hazelwood House, New Oxford Street, a building listed architecturally purely for its rare glass and brass counters and showcases devoted to the service of the umbrella. 

I came across the last Bishop of London there once, a thoughtful and civilised soul, not buying a dagger cane. But any clergyman wistful for the days of gaiters and strange episcopal hats like homburgs with strings from crown to brim (as worn by Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher in a celebrated photo by Jane Bown) would be comforted by Smith’s. I know exactly what I’d buy there: a smooth malacca-cane-handled, maple-shafted fit-up. A fit-up is made the length to fit your height. The price is surprising.

But in fact I don’t carry an umbrella, no matter how tightly furled. I refuse. There is no need in London. It seldom rains even in non-drought years. It is drier than Rome or Lisbon. When it does rain there’s a building to dodge into; that is what being a city means. 

In the country no one carries an umbrella because it is windy and branches would snag it. The exception is clergymen, for even in the country they are dressed formally, like Canon Chasuble in The Importance of Being Earnest. At least they used to be. Now they assume slightly out-of-date casual wear, such as waxed jackets and jeans.

But worse than no umbrella is a folding umbrella. Folding umbrellas invite a gust of wind to blow their spavined ribs inside-out. They are a pretence to being umbrellas, as trainers are to being shoes. And when I hear the word trainers I reach for my swordstick.

‘There are few more humiliating experiences than trying to reason with an inverted umbrella in public’

- Guy Kelly

Guy Kelly: 'You cannot slam the phone down on somebody with any degree of melodrama using a touchscreen' Credit: Paul Grover

I have often wondered whether the inventor of the umbrella had ever actually seen rain. I looked it up. Lo and behold – and, in hindsight, obviously – it turns out the parasol came first, by a few millennia, before the Chinese decided to waterproof one. So I suppose the answer is no, not really.

The unreliable resource I’m looking at reckons the first proper umbrella came to be in around the year 1050 BC, or 3,071 years, eight months and 23 days ago. Which means it must be around 3,071 years, eight months, 11 days and, oh, 23 hours and 55 minutes since the first umbrella bent and turned inside out, rendering itself utterly pointless and eliciting a four-letter review from its drenched owner.

I am no fan, no fan at all. Even the word ‘brolly’ upsets me at a near-cellular level. ‘Don’t forget your brolly!’ the weather presenter will say, chuckling before a map showing the British Isles, where rain has never once fallen in a perfect vertical. Schafernaker, don’t make me hate you.

Some 7,000 umbrellas were abandoned on Transport for London services last year, and yet they’re still not extinct. Every September, instead of taking out an anorak or a pac-a-mac or anything useful, people pop up an umbrella, somehow forgetting they do not work, which is probably why they left the last one on the Tube.

It may just be that I don’t like being encumbered with things. To hold an umbrella, or worse, to be handed one against my will – by a well-meaning host or hotel doorman – is to accept that I am now responsible for keeping it alive, when it will almost definitely commit suicide the moment it’s faced with a breeze any stronger than a kitten’s yawn. And there are few more humiliating experiences than trying to reason with an inverted umbrella in public.

So no, the next time there’s a downpour, you will find me in a coat. You know precisely where you stand with coats, which is: wherever you like, because you don’t have a massive umbrella frame getting in the way of everything and everyone. Put them down. Cast them aside. And don’t get me started on the mini ones.

Read last week's column: Bring back landlines – you cannot dramatically slam the phone down on somebody using a touchscreen