Christopher Somerville's A-Z of walking: U

Christopher Somerville

What could be more indicative of our national mettle than something all stiff and buttoned up, which transforms itself at the press of a stud into a ramshackle piece of pure ingenuity, unfolding clumsily into a great flapping sail liable to be blown inside out or clean away by any decent wind?

That happened to me when I tried walking with a brolly at the Devil’s Punch Bowl – a moment’s glorious shelter, whipped away as an abject wreck with a whip-cracking noise like a thunderstorm localised in my right hand.

The umbrella represents a triumph of hope over experience, particularly in the grasp of a walker in this country. You need your hands, free and unencumbered, for lowering barbed wire, for opening gates, for the zipping and unzipping of anoraks, for flailing at farm dogs and scratching heads over maps.

How can you wrestle simultaneously with an apparatus so diametrically opposed to anything like common sense, an instrument seemingly designed to pinch your fingers and challenge your dignity as it wraps itself round your head like a demonic heron? And don’t even think of putting it to dry by the pub fire, because it’s bad luck to open an umbrella indoors!

How splendidly British! Yet it was the Chinese who invented the contraption – the diligent and dexterous Chinese, 3,000 years ago, while we were skulking around our rain-soaked island encased in sodden wool. I suspect they may have done it just to get at us.

Someone, somewhere, needs to invent something to get our own back. I have a half-formed plan for an electrified noodle bowl, or a set of mah-jong bricks with symbols that rub off on your fingers. Any advances on that?

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