I was sitting reading in the front room yesterday when a sharp rap on the window made me jump. A man stood at the door. Only the sharp features of his face were visible; the rest of his body was protected from the cold wind and rain by a thick shell of industrial yellow. Behind him I could see a Parcel Force van.
He thrust a polythene-wrapped package at me.
He was not the sort to waste words.
‘It’s probably for next door.’ Most parcels are.
‘No. What’s your name.’
Again, there was no question mark. He was not getting any chattier.
‘Then it’s probably for you. Sign here.’
And he was gone, leaving behind him not even a smile of contempt. If the man had looked a bit more cadaverous and carried a large scythe I’m not sure I’d have felt much more defeated.
By the way, if you’d like to read a scarily funny story about Death on the doorstep I’d recommend Mihangel Morgan‘s ‘Ymwelydd Syr Thomas’, in his collection Kate Roberts a’r ystlum, in which the cultural giant T H Parry-Williams argues, passionately but unsuccessfully, with his equivalent of Parcel Force Man against being led away from his home for the last time. Maybe Sir Thomas would have had better luck if he’d adopted the confident tone of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy when Death calls at Tristram’s door at the start of Book VII:
… when DEATH himself knocked at my door – ye bade him come again; and in so gay a tone of careless indifference, did ye do it, that he doubted of his commission –
“ – There must certainly be some mistake in this matter,” quoth he.
… “ – Did ever so grave a personage get into so vile a scrape?”, quoth Death.
… By heaven I will lead him a dance he little thinks of.
And with that Tristram catches the next boat for Calais and gallops across the continent, always keeping a few paces ahead of his pursuer.
It was this encounter that the artist Thomas Patch caught in the caricature of Sterne he painted in 1765 or 1766 when the novelist visited Florence (he later produced two, rather different, engravings of the scene). The premature skeleton, brandishing a winged hourglass in one hand and a scythe in the other, strides through the open door. Sterne, in clergyman’s dress and fashionably long buckled shoes, bows politely, looks Death squarely in the face and addresses him with a smile. The painting is now in Jesus College, Cambridge, where as a student Sterne showed the first symptoms of the tuberculosis that shadowed him for the rest of his life.
But, like Tristram, I digress. Back to the narrative.
I cut open the parcel. Inside was an overcoat. Then I remembered that I’d ordered it a while ago from the Peterborough branch of John Lewis (don’t ask).
What made this a significant event was that I’d never, until yesterday, owned an overcoat. Other kinds of coat, yes, every conceivable kind: anoraks, macs, duffel coats, corduroy coats, fishermen’s smocks, fleeces, Arctic-resistant jackets. But never a proper, traditional overcoat. One designed to go over a suit. (I should explain that I’ve also found it necessary to buy a new suit, much against the grain, because the old ones are worn out.)
This one is a quite ordinary overcoat. It’s designed not to attract attention. Its colour is dark, its styling plain. There’s no spivvy velvet collar. There are just three black buttons. The pockets are cut obliquely, not horizontally, but that hardly makes the coat fashionable. John Lewis is confident about its market of clothes-indifferent males of a mature age. A label claims that the coat’s material is ‘wool blend’, as if it were a goodish but not first class whisky; though blended with what it’s too reticent to say.
Why have I invited this overcoat to share my life? The truth is that its acquisition, sadly, represents a critical rite of passage. There are not many formal events in my diary these days, but there is one type that’s becoming commoner – the funeral. An overcoat is a funeral staple, and for good reason. Most men at funerals understandably wish to avoid drawing the attention of Death, the recent visitor, to them personally, and a good way of doing so is to conform closely to the sartorial norm.
So the overcoat has sinister associations. Not only with death, but also with war. For a forthcoming blog piece I’ve recently been reading about the battle of Mametz Wood (July 1916), and it’s clear that the overcoat was an object of crucial importance to the foot soldiers of the trenches. The longest version was known as a ‘greatcoat’, developed during the First World War into a waterproof version, the ‘trench coat’. Wilfred Owen wrote in a letter from the front on 16 August 1916, ‘My poor troops were wet to the bone. (But I had my Trench Coat.)’. The overcoat was prized as an admittedly limited defence against the constant cold and wet of the ditches and dugouts of the front. The poet and artist David Jones was known as ‘Dai Greatcoat’ among his comrades in the Welsh Battalion that fought in the calamitous battle, and in Part 4 of his great prose poem about his experience as a private soldier In parenthesis (1937) he puts into the mouth of a soldier named ‘Dai Greatcoat’, as he ‘wraps close his misfit outsize greatcoat’, a long speech – Dai ‘articulates his English with an alien care’ – about the ubiquity of the common soldier in battles down the ages. A photograph survives of David Jones dressed in his army greatcoat.
Robert Graves, who arrived with his company in the Mametz Wood some days after the end of the slaughter, describes in Goodbye to all that (1929) how it was his search for warm coats to protect himself and his soldiers from the nighttime cold that caused him to stumble across some of the frozen horrors of the battle:
We were in fighting kit and felt cold at night, so I went into the wood to find German overcoats to use as blankets. It was full of dead Prussian Guards Reserves, big men, and dead Royal Welch and South Wales Borderers of the New Army battalions, little men. Not a single tree in the wood remained unbroken. I collected my overcoats, and came away as quickly as I could, climbing through the wreckage of green branches …
Only a few days later Graves was severely wounded in the battle to take High Wood, and was assumed dead. His mother received the news from his commanding officer. Two days later came another letter, from Graves himself: ‘I am wounded, but all right.’ Death had arrived prematurely.