Wednesday 30 September 2020

For he's still a brolly good fellow

For part two of my umbrella-themed post we pick up from where we left off in part one with a further fictional proponent of umbrella self-defence, something of a 21st century John Steed in many respects and another welcome practitioner of Bartitsu-inspired moves in film.

This is the character of Harry Hart (Codename: Galahad) from the Kingsman series of films.  A slightly more updated take on the gentleman spy genre it nevertheless successfully (in my view) mixes the traditional and modern elements and nowhere is that better illustrated than in the Kingsmen's (and Harry Hart's in particular) dapper style, tailor's shop base of operations and - yes, you've guessed it - wielding of a tightly-furled umbrella.  Although quite adept at belabouring gobby villains and megalomaniacs' henchmen with his trusty gamp Galahad's example also has a few more novel tricks up its shaft compared to Steed's hidden rapier, including an electric-shock chain built into the ferrule, the ability to fire both live or rubber bullets and - the pièce de résistance - a bullet-proof canopy. 

While the cartoon violence and strong language of the Kingsman films may not appeal to everyone's taste I think it is more than offset by the style and panache displayed in both films (although I do prefer the first one over The Golden Circle) and the successfull homage to the '60s spy films and TV series (including The Avengers) that director Matthew Vaughn has gone on record as having been his intention.  Fellow fans of the films - and especially of the well-dressed "gentleman spy" æsthetic and "manners maketh man" ethos - will be pleased to know that a third and final sequel featuring Colin Firth's and Taron Egerton's characters is in the works.  Even more exciting, though, is the forthcoming prequel The King's Man, set around the First World War and showing the origins of the Kingsman Secret Service.  Originally due for release back in February, covid-19 put the kybosh on that and it is now scheduled to be in cinemas early next year (provided things improve, of course).  You'll remember when I apologised for raking up the 1998 Avengers film in my previous post by saying that if you still liked the idea of Ralph Fiennes in three-piece suit, bowler hat and topped off with an umbrella then to hold that thought?  Well here he is again, nearly 25 years later (and looking quite at home in a variety of dashing ensembles) taking over the Colin Firth role as one of the founding Kingsmen in what is a very exciting-looking trailer (complete with a couple of umbrella action sequences).  Personally this is one I can hardly wait for and if it makes it to the cinema (it's already been postponed twice, so I'm not holding my breath) I'll be going, coronavirus or not.

Quite obviously an electrocuting, bullet-proof ballistic brolly would be even more frowned upon by the authorities than a swordstick one (even if it would be equally desirable); of course in this day and age of tie -in movie merchandise it is possible to get an "official" Kingsman umbrella from the likes of Mr Porter and even Briggs themselves, although for the price one would expect them to have all of the aforementioned functionality (sadly they don't).  Stick to your standard gamp and keep practising your Bartitsu, is all I can suggest.

Major Digby Tatham-Warter (left) and his umbrella-based exploits immortalised
(as Major Harry Carlyle) in A Bridge Too Far.

One extraordinary chap who clearly thought he had a bullet-proof umbrella was the distinguished Second World War British Army officer Major Digby Tatham-Warter, whose wartime service saw him first taking part in the Western Desert campaign before volunteering for the Parachute Regiment, a decision that would lead him to take part in one of the most famous engagements of the war - Operation Market Garden, or the Battle of Arnhem.  Clearly a top fellow and splendidly eccentric, Tatham-Warter would brandish a hunting bugle during the battle and trained his troops to recognise its various calls (as had been common military practice during the Napoleonic Wars) since he was - rightly as it turned out - worried about the unreliability of the battalion's field radios.  More pertinently to this article, however, he also carried an umbrella with him as he frequently had difficulty remembering the various passwords he was supposed to use and reasoned that any Allied unit would recognise that "only a bloody fool of an Englishman" would bring a brolly into an active war zone.  In the event it did also turn out to have a practical military application - during one engagement Tatham-Warter was able to take out a German armoured car with his parapluie by the simple expedient of shoving it through the vehicle's viewing slit and incapacitating the driver!

As the Battle of Arnhem raged on, Tatham-Warter could continually be seen moving nonchalantly among his men - sometimes in the face of fierce mortar and sniper fire - while still holding his trusty umbrella.  At one point he led his men in a bayonet charge across Arnhem Bridge against advancing German infantry - brolly in one hand, pistol in the other and wearing a bowler hat that he had contrived to obtain from somewhere.  Steed in battle, more or less!   Still later, he observed the company chaplain trapped by enemy mortar fire while trying to get to some injured soldiers.  Managing to make it to the chaplain's position, Tatham-Warter uttered the immortal line "Don't worry, I've got an umbrella" and proceeded to successfully escort the chaplain back across the street under the protection of its canopy.  Upon returning to the front line while holding the still open gamp, the remark from fellow officer Lieutenant Pat Barnett that "that thing won't do you much good" drew from Tatham-Warter the equally brilliant response - "Oh my goodness Pat, but what if it rains?".

Tatham-Warter's exploits served as the inspiration for the fictional character of Major Harry Carlyle in A Bridge Too Far, Richard Attenborough's famous 1977 retelling of the Battle of Arnhem.  In the film Carlyle dies but, perhaps [un]surprisingly, Tatham-Warter survived to be taken prisoner.  He promptly escaped (naturally!) and for a time worked with the Dutch Resistance before eventually returning to England.  He is certainly fully deserving of - and will one day get - a blog post in his own right but for now we can simply marvel at his brolly-based shenanigans in the face of incredible odds.

Another great bumbershoot-brandishing military eccentric who will also one day get the full Eclectic Ephemera treatment is Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Daniel Wintle MC (left), whose service covered both world wars (and the period in between - which, to give you some idea of the man, he described as "intensely boring") with some quite amazing - and amusing - incidents occurring throughout his life.  A staunch believer in "England and the English way of life" Wintle felt that the umbrella was one of the cornerstones of an English gentleman, a conviction that was established at the tender age of seven when an aunt bought him his first brolly - as he relates in his autobiography The Last Englishman:

"my Aunt Carrie... gave me my first umbrella, purchased at the Army and Navy Stores.  This was to be, for many years, the apple of my eye.  It made me feel I was well on my way to becoming a complete English gentleman.
I could hardly bear to be parted from my umbrella.  I would go off at odd intervals of the day to admire it in the hall-stand and I used to take it to bed with me every night for years.  The feel of the leather handle beside me as I fell asleep gave me the comforting sensation that I was already one of the... breed of Englishmen"

If you can find a copy, GET IT - it is one of the best
autobiographies I have ever read but sadly also one
of the rarest, only published once in 1968.
Although Wintle never went so far as to take an umbrella into battle his firm attachment and strong opinion never left him.  He would go on to say:

"The Englishman... always takes his umbrella with him, anyway, for the good and simple reason that no gentleman ever leaves the house without it."

Mind you, he was also resolute on another point - "no true gentleman ever unfurls his umbrella".  To Wintle, the brolly was a status symbol - the mark of a real English gent - and if it meant getting thoroughly soaked to prove it then so be it.  So convinced was he of this theory that, in later years, before tightly furling it up he would insert a note into the canopy of his gamp that read "This umbrella was stolen from Colonel A. D. Wintle" presumably on the basis that any un-English malefactor who dared to pinch his brolly would be instantly undone upon opening it and so promptly nabbed by the constabulary.

While I wouldn't go so far as to never unfurl my umbrella (and therefore, sadly, in the eyes of Colonel Wintle am not a true Englishman) I would at least extol his instruction to take one with you wherever you go, the weather in this country being so unpredictable (especially at this time of year) and the forecasts generally useless (I find looking out of the window of a morn far more instructive).  Nor would I recommend it as your sole form of armament should you ever find yourself facing off against a hostile tank, although as Major Tatham-Warter proved it couldn't hurt.  If you can take anything away from these posts, be inspired by these chaps both fictional and - however unbelievably - genuine and carry your umbrella with pride whatever the weather.

Finally, to finish on a still lighter note - at the end of the previous post I described Steed's actions with the brolly as "umbrella jousting".  I knew I had heard the term somewhere before and it afterwards came back to me.  It is of course the sport invented by those sterling coves over at The Chap magazine as part of their annual Chap Olympiad and the perfect way to end this post.  Surely it will only be a matter of time before the International Olympic Committee see sense and include umbrella jousting in future Games.  Could we see well-dressed participants with tightly-furled brollies and reinforced newspapers charging each other on bicycles in time for Tokyo, perhaps?  The Japanese would love it!  I leave you with footage of last year's event and let you make up your own mind...

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful. I'm not English, but have distant English cousins. So I have been properly raised when it comes to brollies, anyway. My fantasy is a solid Fox; my reality as a Yank is a cheap TOTES.


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