Monday, 17 January 2011

The Fool and His Umbrella

This may resonate with a few of you, on a soggy London morning, like today.


THE umbrella in the hands of imbecility is more inconvenient to the public than any motor. The fool who carries his umbrella spiked end upward pointing at the face, and especially the eyes, of fellow-passengers and walkers in crowded places has always been with us. He probably dates back to the days when umbrellas were first used. But of late he has increased alarmingly in numbers, and has become surely more foolish with his umbrella than ever, and therefore of course more dangerous. If the Home Secretary could furnish some returns showing the number and nature of the injuries caused by the conversion of umbrellas into bayonets the figures might be startling. In railway carriages, in crowded thoroughfares, and in motor omnibuses, the fool and his umbrella form a constant menace; it is a pity that, unlike the fool and his money, they are so rarely parted.
    Perhaps he is deadlier in the motor omnibus than elsewhere. He seizes the railing of the motor with one hand and in the other holds his umbrella by its middle, spike upward, pointing towards the faces of the row of fellow-passengers along which he advances to take his seat. If a sudden jolt occurs, and at that moment he has relaxed his grip of the railing, there is no reason why the spike of the fixed bayonet he carries should not take out somebody's eye or tooth.
    Accidents of this kind simply must happen from time to time. But they are not good, sensational copy, so they do not find their way into the press. Indeed most people who move much about the crowded streets and "ride" in London vehicles have been, some time or other, within an ace of being stabbed or blinded by the umbrella or stick of imbecility. The stick, however, is not so dangerous as the umbrella. It is a blunter weapon, usually worn down at the tip ; whereas the umbrella is finely tipped, and, with the deadweight of a fool behind it, can pierce and scoop like a lancet. There are certainly many thousands of fools with umbrellas in London alone. Your hand instinctively flies up as a feeble shield for your face when you see them advancing on you for a frontal attack. But nothing is done to abate this nuisance. It is intolerable, yet tamely tolerated. Perhaps you glare at the fool. He has not the least idea you are doing so, or, if he does notice your reproachful look, is at a complete loss to account for it.
    One way no doubt would be to make a rule of taking firmly his umbrella from him and breaking it in two; but discretion keeps you from this straightforward, manly course : the man may be superior to you in brute force ; or he may summon you ; and in any case there would be a disagreeable scene in a public place. There remains the tamer way of correcting him, warning him, urging him to keep down the point. Even this may lead to a scene ; besides it is ineffective. He simply does not see the point, or he reddens with ruffled dignity and tells you "Mind your own business". It is quite likely that there are other fools with umbrellas in the vehicle, and they giggle their applause of his spirit.
    The only safe remedy you have is to wait till he breaks your tooth or removes your eye, and then sue him for damages on the chance of a sympathetic jury ; but suppose the panel itself includes even one obstinate fool with an umbrella? He may not see the point, and you will not get your damages.
    What then can be done ? Legislation clearly is out of the question. Parliament could not pass a Bill: making it compulsory that every umbrella should have a button, like a rapier's, on the tip : nor could you by law enact that no man shall carry an umbrella till he has proved that he understands the right use of it. One thing however really might be done to decrease the number of umbrellas used as bayonets. The London railway companies and omnibus companies at the present time post up notices in the trains and vehicles against certain pestilent tricks. Thus, they threaten to fine a man forty shillings if he spits, and as much as five pounds for a. repetition of the offence. The state of too many of the smoking-carriages on the Underground does not show that this notice stops the disgusting habit. Still it has done something towards lessening the evil. If the companies would post up notices urging people to hold their umbrellas point downward except during rain, they would do a public service. They could not, it is true, fine a man for holding his umbrella upside down, but by their notice they would point at him a finger of scorn. We are sure that by such a public notice an inconvenience would be lessened and movement in crowded places made less hazardous.

The Saturday Review, 1907

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