June 6, 2017

Nonfiction preview: Brolliology


This week, as we grow tired of protecting our heads from rain and prepare to protect our heads from the hot rays of the sun, we’re taking a look at some of the books we have forthcoming in the next few months.

Umbrellas. Umbrellas go way back in human history — they were held over the heads of our earliest rulers, they’ve served as markers of class and gender, they figure prominently in folklore and literature.

In Brolliology, one of the best literary gift books ever to rain down on this world, bookseller Marion Rankine examines the umbrella in all its forms and significances. It’ll be out on November 7. Here’s a taste:

I think this one exploded? Charing Cross Road, London.

“When… did the umbrella first become an article to be routinely forgotten rather than assiduously remembered?” muses psychiatrist Zachary Busner in Will Self’s Umbrella. Walk around any city sufficiently blessed with rain and, ideally, a wind tunnel or two, and you will no doubt meet, at some point on your travels, a discarded umbrella. They tend to lurk in corners and alleyways, jammed half-in, half-out of bins, or stuck amongst rubbish heaps awaiting collection: rain slicked, limp and melancholy objects, with bent or broken wings, spindles showing, canopies detached and apping. Broken battered sea-birds, littering the streets.

In Bring Me Sunshine, Charlie Connelly devotes a whole chapter to umbrellas, waxing lyrical about the “wonderful dignity” of a brolly, the “smooth, symmetrical flowering as you put it up, the effortless movement and coordination of countless working parts, the elegance of its dome.” He calls umbrellas “beautiful machines” and laments “seeing one battered and ruined and shoved unceremoniously into a bin.” For Connelly, the thoughtless disposal of a broken brolly is a supreme mark of disrespect for the feat of engineering—the “triumph of nearly every kind of human industry”—that has gone into each one, whether it’s a cheap pop-up or a distinguished safari model.

A flower behind the ear, Liverpool.

However, these discombobulated umbrellas have always struck a note of comic pathos with me. What a hapless, helpless object is the broken brolly. Some deteriorating things can be adapted for other purposes: parts salvaged, resources reappropriated. Clothing can be torn into rags, food scraps can be composted, furniture can be dismantled for hardware and timber. But a brolly, for all its possible uses in life, in death is good for very little else. Unable to be mended by the layperson—and rarely worth the mending—the broken brolly is cast aside, where it cannot help but look awkward and out of place.

This note of wrong place, wrong time is a key aspect of brollyness, and one which Dickens plays to great comic effect in his umbrella writing (one is reminded, yet again, of Mrs Gamp’s gamp). In ‘Dickens’s Umbrellas,’ John Bowen notes an interesting example from The Old Curiosity Shop. The lawyer Sampson Brass is eulogizing his client, the villainous Quilp, who is believed to be dead (but is in fact listening at the keyhole). In so doing, Brass acknowledges Quilp’s “wit and humour, his pathos and his umbrella.” But what is an umbrella—or rather, its signifier—doing in a eulogy? As Bowen writes,

Qualities that we might want to remember as being an essential aspect or accomplishment of the dead, such as wit, pathos and humour, are suddenly punctuated by a thing that seems merely contingent, occasional, easily detachable or lost. The umbrella, as umbrellas so often do, seems to have got itself into the wrong place.

Gutter monster, London.

In London, where bags of rubbish are piled on the sides of streets for nightly collection, and antilittering laws seem all but nonexistent, there is no shortage of umbrellas getting themselves into the wrong places. While I was researching fictional umbrellas, I realized that I was encountering their real-life counterparts in the wild at least once a week, and made it my mission to start documenting them.

Just as a new word seems to proliferate in your reading the moment you learn it, the umbrellas, too, began multiplying as soon as I started looking out for them. I learned their habits as if I were tracking wild animals. I knew to keep particular watch in unused doorways—thresholds to nowhere—and down side streets and alleyways. I scrutinized every rubbish heap and odd-looking projection from bins. I learned what weather they liked best (early bluster, followed by a clear day; presumably because no one bothers persisting with a failed umbrella once the sun comes out). Soon, I was finding several per week — on one memorable occasion, four in five minutes. As I posted and shared the photos, my friends started sending me pictures of their own wild brolly encounters. Brollies bred brollies bred brollies.

Broken blossom, Christmas Eve, London

Most umbrellas that I found were chaotically deformed, beyond usefulness, but some were, by all appearances, simply forgotten. A forgotten brolly has its own pathos: according to Connelly, over eighty thousand umbrellas are left on London’s public transport system every year.


Brolliology by Marion Rankine
PAGES: 192
ISBN: 9781612196701
ON SALE: November 7, 2017