The item I have chosen is an umbrella. I found this umbrella on the King’s Road on the ground in the gateway of one of the posh buildings near the University. It was a rainy day, and the umbrella had been discarded – presumably because it was broken. It lay on the ground like some bedraggled road-kill crow, covered in mud and leaves. It looked so different from a man-made object, its symmetry ruined along with its structure. The fabric had come away from its spokes and flapped in the wind like a broken wing. Somehow this object at the end of its functional existence seemed more alive (or more truly dead). Being a thrifty student I decided that this was not the end for the poor dead thing, but it could live on, perhaps as art!
In the spirit of the Christmas season I brought it home and propped it up near the front door (not my usual custom with guests, you understand). During the course of the next week or so as we became accustomed to each other it gradually found its way into the snug nook alongside the radiator at the bottom of the stairs, where it remained over the holiday with the Christmas Tree to keep it company.
My reaction to this object has revealed its extrinsic value – the act of “rescuing” it amused me. Seeing the item in the context of its original abandonment lent it symbolism. Abandoned umbrellas on a stormy day are almost a cliché like the tumbleweed rolling across our screens in Western movies, and so bringing the umbrella home was an absurd act. Without its context, this umbrella is intrinsically of little or no value. More than that, there was a cost in bringing it home. The thing has quite frankly been an annoyance at times. It began with having to transport this sodden and muddy mess back home on the train, and carrying it along with my usual bag and portfolio was not easy, and made harder by the need to try to keep it off my clothes. Ironically I found I could not use my own perfectly good umbrella to keep dry whilst carrying this one. I attracted not a few looks from passengers on the train as well as passers by, who were clearly wondering why I was bothering, and by this point so was I. Once home, it was difficult to store the umbrella, as it tended to collapse, fall over and get in the way. On one occasion it’s sharp metal spokes scratched the paint on the wall. Its annoyed my tidy-minded boyfriend. The cat has taken offence. It really didn’t go with the Christmas decorations. It lurked in the corner like Edgar Allen-Poe’s Raven.
There was something almost like a performance about bringing the umbrella home, and perhaps I should feel that this itself should have been rewarding, but still I felt obliged to try to repair it. Perhaps I was feeling sorry for it, and simply wanted to look after it like a sick animal. I suspect my motivation was more that – having been through hell bringing it home – I wanted to actually get some material value back from it. I started out by washing it off in the bath (which I then had to clean of course). I had a go at fitting the cloth back onto the spokes, but I belatedly discovered that some of the supporting struts had broken off the spokes, and the thing was a terminal case.
Having invested so much effort (not to mention hot water, cleaning materials and strain on my relationship) I felt determined that this object was not going to be a millstone around my neck but perhaps an opportunity. I have therefore been moved to think about this as more than the broken piece of rubbish that it intrinsically is. I was initially drawn to this object by its almost cinematographic symbolism, and clearly this simple object means a lot more to me now. It occurred to me that there was also the question of the previous owner. I have assumed they weren’t coming back for it. Perhaps I should have been more worried about that – perhaps it escaped them in a gust of wind and they were looking for it. Did they see me pick it up? The branding shows this came from JJB Sports, and the style of the umbrella suggests that the owner would have been a man. As I walk through town in the future, it would seem prudent to keep an eye out for a (presumably damp) “chav” in sportswear heading my way.
The question of value is very relative. I have no way of knowing whether the previous owner realized that the umbrella was beyond repair (or at least my own skills). In a society that is so used to the concept of disposable goods as ours is, I would not be surprised if this was simply a case where the value to the original owner was lost as soon as the umbrella ceased to be an object of convenience, and quite literally became “more trouble than it was worth”. The act of abandoning it was actually quite destructive. It was irresponsible, since it could have blown into the road and caused an accident: the thing looked alive when I found it after all, so I have no doubt that drivers would have swerved to avoid it. It was also an act of littering. Had it been properly disposed of, it is possible that it would have been recycled. And yet this also ended up being something more, and I now find myself regretting that (because of the rain) I didn’t take the time to photograph the scene that the unwitting artist created, but rather I removed the key part of the scene like a magpie stealing a souvenir. Perhaps I even deprived others of the same experience.
This umbrella in its demise is now both more than, and less than, an umbrella. And yet umbrellas themselves are an amusing oddity to me. The idea is to provide shelter, but in my experience the weather in this country is not so easily foiled and the user can expect to experience something akin to a tidal effect: the greater the amount of wind the higher the waterline on the body (there is a similar relationship between puddles and passing white vans). They also seem extraordinarily popular on busy pavements, where the users can often be seen engaging in jousts as they negotiate street furniture while trying to avoid having their eyes poked out. Umbrellas of course started out four thousand years ago as parasols, which makes a lot more sense. The Chinese then began waxing or lacquering their parasols to make them waterproof, but then this was in the days before lampposts and white vans. Umbrellas became popular in the West in the 16th century and in 1852 Samuel Fox invented the steel ribbed umbrella design in response to the demands of the British weather (and presumably a certain breed of British Nanny). Modern umbrellas really are an impressive piece of design, and unlike the umbrella I found I’m pleased to say that my faithful compact umbrella is remarkably resilient to wind damage (although I have had a few near-flight experiences). There is something very bird-like about them aside from their aerodynamic tendencies: erecting an umbrella always reminds me of a bird’s wing opening, and when closing my umbrella I usually find myself preening it to ensure it is tidy.
Aesthetically I don’t consider an umbrella a particularly beautiful object, however my experiences with the one I found have shown me that there is an elegance in their design and operation that could be taken for granted. An umbrella is an icon of British life, as is the act of consuming tea (a hot cup is just the thing having been soaked to the skin by that white van, after all). There is an inherent absurdity in an object that so blatantly fails to fulfill its primary function, and yet one wonders why everyone doesn’t just buy a long waterproof coat and hat instead. Is it really just to avoid getting a spoke in the eye?