My first indoor job, before I went to university, was with the Civil Service. I was required to wear a suit and I bought an extraordinary one from a second-hand shop in Godalming. It was tailor-made and by the look of it dated from the Twenties: heavy serge, double-breasted. As I got older it became fancy dress but it never wore out. Older men in the office wore black jackets and pinstripe trousers, often indescribably filthy. They would wear bowler hats to work and the government provided stands for the hats to be left on during the working day.
The first job of all was before that. It was in a watercress factory and there was no dress code there, except that the front line operatives, who entered the beds themselves as I was not trusted to do, wore extravagant gumboots with easy authority. Furthermore, my time there coincided with a programme of national industrial action; some of my colleagues were strikers and wore the clothes appropriate to the trade from which they had withdrawn their labour but to which they expected – rightly – to return.
Had they been doctors on strike, as so often today, and worn their surgical gowns, that might have served to minimise the staining from the vigorous action of knife on watercress, as, normally, from arterial blood; but they weren’t – doctors didn’t strike in those days and indeed their terms and conditions were such that they had no reason to – they were sailors.
After university and so on I returned to an office. In the intervening years expectations as regards dress had become less strict. Bowler hats, black jackets and pinstripe trousers were still to be found, but by this time were statements of something or other rather than the norm. Nevertheless we were expected to wear a dark suit and a shirt and tie. I personally considered it to be obligatory also to carry a briefcase to work. If one could not avoid taking work home it would go in the briefcase; otherwise it would be for one’s sandwiches and the rest of the clutter that inevitably accumulated. For me it was important that the case was big enough that I could buy and bear LPs home in it, so as to get them into the house unseen.
It was essential that the case be made of leather.
Time goes by and you don’t notice that things change around you. Everyone can see that suits are more or less restricted to lawyers and bankers these days, and even they wear them without ties. Indeed they make a thing of wearing them without ties, striding around the office with the top button of their shirts undone, and their ties hanging importantly in special places in their rooms, to be put on when meeting other lawyers or bankers, but only then. I think that’s regrettable. An open shirt with an open jacket is messy. If I want to wear a suit but no tie I wear a t-shirt or a sweater.
That much is obvious to anyone thoughtfully considering the zeitgeist. It was briefcases that snuck up on me.
I have read that the enduring slaughter and bigotry in the north of Ireland were due to the fact that children were often brought up by their grandparents. The enviable level of employment in the province meant that both parents would be out working, leaving the field free for the grandparents to pass on their poison. The children would take on the prejudices of two generations back.
It was a similar thing with me and my briefcase.
Some thirty years ago I had a nice black leather briefcase. It was quite new. One evening I went to see my friends Anthony and Evie. We were enjoying a pleasant supper, with conversation, when a sudden breeze made itself felt through the house. Someone had forced the front door and made off with it.
I asked my bank to stop as many of the cards as I could remember the names of and asked my employers for a new carphone. I bought a new black leather briefcase. There was of course no time to lose.
The next evening I had a call from a man who ran a fish and chip shop in the Seven Sisters Road. In the small hours of the morning, he said, a youth had flung my briefcase into his doorway, having taken what he needed. I collected it. The man gladly sold me a portion of chips but refused any expression of gratitude. It turned out that the youth’s needs had been modest. He had removed a bottle of cheap red wine but left everything else: credit cards, carphone and all. As I result I had two carphones, but I kept the new one, which was gratifyingly larger – this was the 1980s – my employers had no interest in taking back the old one and I sold it to a Cypriot.
But the point here is not the carphone but the briefcase. I took back into use the stolen case, which I used until it finally split some years ago. I then had the replacement waiting, a generation after its time, and I took it into service. I gave it no thought: that was as it should be.
The mockery of my colleagues brought me up short. They made it clear to me that my black leather briefcase was an anachronism. Look around, they said. The men who don’t put their ties on when they go home, who may indeed change into trainers to walk to the tube station, they don’t have black leather briefcases. They have canvas bags. Some of these bags have slogans on. Some are not even black.
It was true. My eyes were opened.
Once a train of thought starts you can’t help following it. I noticed that some of these bags were not even designed to be grasped in one hand, umbrella in the other, but to be suspended from the shoulders. When I was a Boy Scout, we used to carry rucksacks. These bags are similar to Boy Scouts’ rucksacks, but smaller, and unlike rucksacks tend not to display on their surface a record of tasks achieved in the form of embroidered badges.
One is wary of drawing lines in the sand. Time inexorably eradicates them. But I am tempted to try to draw a line at rucksacks in the business world, and I am reassured in two ways.
The first is the exciting computer installed by our government’s ‘Border Agency’ to inspect passport-holders. When I last saw this in action it rejected everyone with a bag on their back. It couldn’t distinguish between shoulder bags and illegal immigrants crouching malignantly on the shoulders of the honest. And what is good enough for our government is good enough for me.
Secondly, the dog takes a simple view of these things and regards anyone with a bag on his back as a postman. Unless restrained he removes the seat of their trousers with the remains of his teeth. Marks & Spencer’s gentlemen’s suiting is surely not so reasonably priced as to make that a risk worth taking.