In the UK there has been a mild frisson of woke irritation ever since an ’eminent’ divorce lawyer banned cardigans on women as inappropriate attire in the office. They should look executive, like the president of a country.
I have no opinion on cardies or presidential dress but I do know that I was lucky in the timing of my legal career, in that I avoided some of the rigidity of the City dress code that pertained maybe five years before I started work. One of the senior lawyers in the office spoke of being summoned by the then Senior Partner, along with two of his junior colleagues.
Standing as if in the headmaster’s study the three twenty something’s wondered what their crime might be.
‘Gentlemen’ intoned the revered expert in all things legal, ‘I was pleased to see you desporting yourselves today during your luncheon, but may I suggest in future you would feel more comfortable had you,’ he looked at the storyteller, ‘worn your jacket rather than,’ something changed in his tone as if excessive disappointment had near overwhelmed the old boy, ‘draped it. And you,’ he turned to another young lawyer, ‘would have shown yourself to be the right sort had you ensured your brolly was correctly furled.’ The word ‘furled’ was emphasised as one might ‘bomb’ in other worrisome circumstances. He shook his head, and continued, ‘And I’m not unaware that we live in more liberal times, but, gentlemen, please you each possess a bowler hat for a reason.’ A long sad pause was followed by, ‘Please do not forget, gentlemen.’
By the start of the eighties the bowler was more a party accessory, something worn by the curious and cranky. It struck me as ugly and uncomfortable and frankly useless in so far as it neither kept the rain off nor your head warm.
I shared this opinion with my father. He, too, was no wearer of unnecessary headwear and, as this picture attests both of us fail in the ‘cool headwear’ stakes…
but this time, he paused. ‘There was one occasion…’
Dad was demobbed in 1948, having done his three years of service, mostly in Palestine. He had wanted to be a journalist before signing up in 1944 but that career went with the need to find a job… any job. He found employment in the City of London as a commodity broker, buying and selling corn, wheat, soya and all sorts. In those days, he lived with his parents in a sleepy end of the line Surrey town called Caterham. Everyday he caught the train, joining the massed ranks of (white male) commuters as they sat in smoky steam trains for the twenty minute ride to Victoria station.
So much was based on long established custom and practice. You did what was expected, no more no less and heaven forfend that you should break any unwritten rules.
You arrived at the platform, joined the queue to the likely place the train carriage door would be, alighted, took a seat, ensuring the more senior passengers always had their customary seats, unfolded your paper and read. If someone you knew got on at a later station, you might nod an acknowledgement that you knew them, but there would be no conversation. And gentlemen wore bowler hats. At. All. Times.
One colleague of dad’s caught the same train, but his station was the next one to dad’s. Most evenings the two young men walked to the tube, caught it to Victoria, all the time chatting happily. Such freedom! But as soon as the overground train was ready, conversation ceased and they travelled in silence, nodded their goodbyes as said friend stood, lowered the window and reached out to open the door and descend.
All so routine, all so normal until one day, said colleague, let’s call him Jim was late in leaving. Dad wondered if he had some appointment, maybe a date he’d not mentioned that morning. But no, just as dad was about to give up, Jim appeared at a rush, all flustered. ‘Sorry,’ he winced, ‘must be something I ate.’ He patted his stomach to indicate the region of the problem.
‘Are you alright?’ Dad might have sounded concerned with Jim’s health but at least part of the question related to the likelihood of incipient embarrassment.
‘Sure.’ Oh the braggadocio of youth!
By the time they’d reached Victoria Jim’s intestines were experiencing something of a tumult. Sadly, neither Dad nor Jim had the necessary coinage to use the public conveniences – one penny – so Jim had to show both fortitude and exceptional musculature control to hold on until the carriage appeared and he could hurry inside.
Train toilets, circa 1949/50, had a dystopian quality. They were, amongst other things, tiny. ‘Here, old chap, hold these.’ Jim thrust his bowler and brolly at dad and disappeared to the end of the carriage.
Dad took his seat, embarrassed to be holding a spare hat and umbrella while concerned at Jim’s plight. The image of Jim’s high toed trot told him delay would be a disaster. Dad broke one of many rules; he did not retrieve his paper but watched the end of the carriage next to the toilet door. At various times he saw people look up, frowns of confusion and disgust occasionally scudding across their brows, accompanied by wrinkled noses.
But what of Jim?
Inside the small booth, there was little room to manoeuvre. The act of entering, turning to lock the door, remove one’s jacket, release one’s braces and drop both outer and inner garments proved too much. The fusillade exploded, much like the canons at the end of the 1812 Overture but a few bars too early. While mostly the aim was accurate sufficient missed to render the undergarments unwearable and the outer garments in need of some rapid husbandry.
In a stroke of some good luck, or so Jim assumed it to be, the taps worked and in rapid order he had effected a element of reparations to his trousers, but at the cost of them being soaked. Here, perhaps for the first time since the urge struck Jim, the need to conform overtook him. He decided that reappearing with patently soaked trousers might suggest some form of accident, a sad state of affairs and given he expected to be travelling with these self same passengers for many years, the pitying looks associated with him being ‘that young incontinent’ would be too much to bear. Today a hand-dryer might be prayed in aide but back then, there was only one way for speedy drying. The small sliding window. Jim understood the risks; he checked to see if any bridges were near and then pushed the legs outside.
Oh alack the day! Our hero, so close to solving his intestinal contrafabulation had not reckoned on a cable used to catch the mail. In seconds his trousers were thus delivered to Norwood Junction, to, no doubt, the Station Master’s confusion.
What to do? Jim had a few minutes before his station. From the waist up, he had the full regalia – shirt, tie, jacket. On his feet he had polished shoes and black socks. Between… nothing that could be used to cover his embarrassment.
Jim had fought his way across Europe, decorated for bravery. He had initiative and gusto. There had to be a solution.
In those days, the suits men wore as a commodity broker, were not the lounge suits of my days. Nope, they had frock coats and grey striped trousers. In a brain wave, Jim saw the jacket in the guise of saviour. Inverting it, he slipped his legs through the arms, buttoned the front from knees to navel and clutched the excess material around his waist.
Naturally the appearance was odd but Jim heaved the jacket as high as it would go, told himself he could do this and, with his stop now imminent, exited the more than fetid lavatory.
Eyes followed him, though no one spoke as he maintained as manly a stride as he could and headed for my astonished father. Wordlessly he met my father’s eyes, imploring him to react as normally as possible. There was, by now, a space opposite dad and Jim subsided into the seat, happy to have got this far.
While Jim felt relief, my father’s astonishment had turned to horror.
Jim’s sartorial solution had one flaw, based on the major difference between the trouser and the jacket… the position of the openings. In the trouser it is the waist and the fly, in the jacket, the waist and the neck. But the fly has buttons or a zip. The neck… not so much.
Dad never suggested Jim was especially over-endowed but he was clearly sufficiently hung that the unzipped aperture revealed more of Jim’s anatomy that, even today, it is customary to expose on a British train..
Dad nodded, he kicked Jim and pointed. It seems it took a significant breach of rule seven, when the gentleman to dad’s left, alerted by dad’s discomfort to look up, and exclaimed, ‘Oh my lord’, that Jim understood.
In desperation, but still instinctively finding solutions where lesser men might have wept, he grabbed the bowler that dad was holding and hurriedly inserted it inside the jacket, thus neatly filling the egregious opening.
‘Whytleafe South. Whyteleafe South.’
It was Jim’s station. Things were drawing to an end.
Jim stood but all the exertions since that last tsunami had released the next wave. Jim felt the tide draw back, readying itself to release another unconscionable consequence upon our poor benighted hero.
With his legs forced akimbo, like a John Wayne double, Jim apologised his way across the carriage to the door on the far side. He pulled down the window and leant out, to release the handle. He was moments from the gloomy anonymity of the platform.
Dad always assumed it was the final hinging, the pressure exerted on a trigger happy gut that led to the last indignity. As dad watched Jim’s retreating back he detected the telltale tensing. As Jim stepped forth, an at once familiar and yet horrifying noise filled the carriage and the usual stench of smoke and brakes seemed, for once like puppies and lavender by comparison.
The door shut and Jim disappeared into the night. Dad leant back, eyes shut, suffering both for his friend and embarrassment by association. But dad was a young man, a former member of the forces. Inwardly a grin was beginning to emerge at the potential for banter and teasing that would follow.
That happy state lasted another seven minutes until dad, himself, alighted at Caterham station and found he had Jim’s bowler. Which could only mean one thing.