Howard Jacobson: My quest for a coat, destination unknown

It's become compulsive now. I'm giving everyone the once-over. If I see a coat I like approaching, I move in close

Share
Related Topics

Saul Bellow wrote somewhere that it is all very well for a writer to describe a character's thoughts, but if you don't also describe what the character is wearing when he has those thoughts, you haven't got to the heart of him.

So while I have urgent things to say about no-fly zones, pensions, Arab dictators funding British universities, etc, I would not be true to my novelist's calling if I didn't tell you what I am wearing or, more to the point, what I am thinking about wearing, while these subjects swirl about my head.

I leave shortly for a book tour of America that will necessitate my getting on and off about a dozen planes in about a dozen days, and need something I am not prepared to call a parka to travel in. As a rule, I favour long, flowing, black overcoats which give me, I like to think, the look of a stoic philosopher who could in other circumstances have been a rabbi. Spinoza, say. But such a coat is cumbersome for flying in. By the time you have taken it off and put it on again as you pass through security, and then struggled to find a locker with enough space for it on the plane, and then hauled it up and hauled it down again, you are exhausted. So something light, but also – because spring is slow coming to New York – warm. Light and yet warm, I say to shop assistants who make the mistake of asking if they can help me. No one can help me.

Of the 100 I look at, 30 are quilted – I trust I don't have to explain why I wouldn't be seen dead in anything quilted (even my coffin won't be quilted) – 30 are too long and make me look like Colonel Gaddafi, and 40 are too short and make me look like Ant and Dec. "It isn't the parka that's short," one assistant explains, alienating me at once since I'm not looking for a parka. "It's your jacket that's too's long." She offers me a shorter jacket to try on underneath. I refuse. I abhor short jackets. A man in a short jacket will never look serious unless he is a ballet dancer or a bull fighter, and even then it's touch and go.

When I do find one that's the right length, as light as I would like it and as warm as I must have it, unquilted and unhooded and with pockets adequate to what I know I will be carrying as I zigzag across America, but then again not too obtrusive – too many pockets and you could be mistaken for an amateur photographer or fisherman – I hit the biggest no-no of all. Words. What is it in the nature of casual clothing that makes their manufacturers suppose we will be willing billboards of their merchandise? If it demeans us to be walking logos in our business suits, it demeans us no less when we're wearing parkas, except I don't want a parka. Spinoza would not have worn a quilted track suit saying Tommy Hilfiger. I rest my case.

I fall to wondering what Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, member of the LSE's ruling council, and the most self-righteous person in Britain, wears when she's off duty. She is on my mind because of the LSE's shonky connection with the Libyan dictator's family. I picture her in a parka with the word Gaddafi embroidered on it. I try not to be too censorious. We're all beholden to somebody we shouldn't be. Look at the people queuing all day to buy an Abercrombie and Fitch T-shirt. Abercrombie and Fitch aren't up there with Gaddafi, but the principle remains the same – we are created in God's image and shouldn't allow anyone else to mark us with their brand.

"You could always unpick the stitching," a lady in Fenwicks suggests, when I find the very thing I'm looking for, but with Barbour International sewn on to the top pocket. "Won't it leave holes?" I ask. She can't lie to me. "Probably." I see her wondering if she could get away with suggesting that the holes would give much needed aeration, but I am gone by then, lucklessly navigating New Bond Street, and then off to Regent Street where I intend to try Banana Republic, a shop whose shirts I get on with. But there's some witless would-be wisdom written on Banana Republic's window – "Life's a journey – explore it in style" – and I won't go in.

Everything is now a metaphorical journey. I made a documentary about the Book of Genesis recently, in the course of which they tried to get me to say I was on a journey. "I'm not," I said. They got their own back in the end when the programme won a prize and the judges congratulated me on my journey.

Meanwhile, my actual journey gets closer and I have no coat for it. I am starting to scrutinise what people are wearing in the street. I remind myself of William Blake. "I wander through each chartered street,/ Near where the chartered Thames does flow" – only Blake was marking marks of weakness, marks of woe, and I'm only marking what I refuse to call a parka. And suddenly the whole world seems to be wearing one. It's become compulsive now. I'm giving every one the once-over. If I see a coat I like approaching I move in close to check if it's logo-free. People are regarding me strangely. Why am I staring at their chests?

I recall an old girlfriend telling me that she once caught herself looking at men's trousers in the streets and, having become aware of it, found it impossible to stop. "They think I'm looking at their penises," she said. "So what are you looking at?" I asked her. "Their penises," she told me.

Her point was that once you know there's somewhere you mustn't rest your eye, you can't rest it anywhere else. Shami Chakrabarti must have felt the very opposite about human rights abuses in Libya.

And so it is with me. I have become not-a-parka-fixated. And I'm not just looking now, I'm grabbing surreptitious feels, trying to gauge the quality and weight of the material. If this goes on, I will be arrested. And it won't help in the slightest to explain that, no matter how it appears, I am in actuality on a journey of the mind, thinking about no-fly zones, pensions, Shami Chakrabarti, and the strange truth that the most sanctimonious among us are always those with the least reason to be.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

General Election 2015: What on earth happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions