Every cloud: the humble brolly rains supreme after 3,000 years

Every cloud: the humble brolly rains supreme after 3,000 years

Patrick Mcnee as Steed in The Avengers, holding one of his famous umbrellas, with Diana Rigg as Emma Peel

I WAS sitting in my car recently outside a hospital in Cork waiting for my wife. It was a dirty evening, pouring with rain.

As I sat there, I noticed a nurse in the foyer pushing an elderly lady in a wheelchair towards the entrance of the hospital where, I presumed, she was going to be collected.

The woman was wearing a dressing gown, which wasn’t ideal for the conditions, even if it was waterproof.

A car pulled up beside me and a lady got out and ran to the front door, where she began discussing tactics with the others. I could see their dilemma, so I got my umbrella out of the boot and offered to cover the lady in the wheelchair while she got to the car.

She thought I was giving it to her, and as she took it off me, she accidentally struck me in the eye. She got sorted though and was very grateful.

With my good deed done for the day, I returned to the car, smarting in one eye and soaked to the skin, but the lady was dry and on her way home, so it ended well.

As I sat there, it crossed my mind that, with all the technology we have at our disposal in this modern world, there is still an important role for the humble brolly. 

The internet can’t protect you from the rain, and there’s no vaccine that will keep you dry so, for now, we rely on the umbrella. That got me wondering about its origin. Where did it come from?

Well, it’s been with us for a while, more than 3,000 years in fact. The first umbrellas, or parasols, were used by the Egyptians as protection from the sun. They put some leaves together on a stick and, hey presto, they had a parasol. If you look up the meaning of parasol, you will discover it’s a light umbrella, designed to give shade from the sun.

There is another definition that describes a parasol as a widely distributed, large mushroom with a broad, scaly, greyish-brown cap and a tall, slender stalk. I’m not sure which word came first but I reckon it’s unlikely they had mushrooms in the dry climate of Egypt, although maybe they did.

Anyway, the word ‘umbrella’ comes from the Latin word ‘umbra’, meaning shade or shadow, so, it would seem that the original idea was to provide protection from the heat of the sun, and it was the Chinese who first used the parasol as a way of keeping dry. They waxed the paper covering to make it waterproof. That caught on, and the umbrella soon became popular in rainy northern Europe, but it was initially considered suitable for women only.

I suspect the original designers of the umbrella never imagined that it would have other uses too. 

John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee of The Avengers, never went anywhere without his and regularly used it as a weapon.

Steed operated in the 1960s alongside his sidekick Emma Peel, played by Diana Rigg, and those of a certain vintage will remember his three-piece suit, bowler hat and the ever-present umbrella, his favourite weapon.

The handle concealed a sword, and other umbrellas at his disposal contained a variety of accessories. One had a tape recorder, another had a tip that could emit knock-out gas, another one had a camera hidden under the handle for covert photography, and he even had one that contained measures of whisky.

Steed also rang doorbells with the tips of his umbrella instead of using his finger.

I’m not sure how he knew which umbrella he was going to need at any given time, but he always managed to have the right one for the occasion.

That seemed far-fetched back then, but it wasn’t long before umbrellas were used as weapons by eastern Europeans. 

In 1978, Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was allegedly killed by a poison dart filled with ricin that was fired from an umbrella on Waterloo Bridge in London.

Markov, a communist defector working for the BBC World Service, left his office at Bush House in the UK capital on September 11 and walked across the bridge to take the train home. As he waited at a bus-stop, he felt a sharp jab in his thigh and saw a man picking up an umbrella.

He developed a high temperature and four days later, he was dead. A post-mortem examination established that he had been killed by a tiny pellet containing a small dose of the poison, that was only detected because the pellet carrying the poison failed to dissolve as it was supposed to.

Umbrellas can also be destructive in the domestic setting. Walking around the house with a fully extended golf umbrella is guaranteed to end badly, so it is not recommended.

Having said that, it is actively encouraged on one day every year. March 13 is ‘Open an Umbrella Indoors Day’. The organisers say that while opening an umbrella indoors is supposed to be bad luck, they want to know if there is any truth behind this superstition.

‘Open An Umbrella Indoors Day’ was invented in 2003 by Thomas Knibb, who hoped to defy the superstition by encouraging people to open their umbrellas indoors and then observe the consequences.

If you want to take part, just follow these four simple steps: Find an umbrella and check that you are indoors. Position yourself clear of breakable objects and people who value their eyesight. Take a deep breath, grasp the umbrella handle firmly with one hand and open the umbrella with the other. Then note any bad luck that occurs after.

Best of luck, with that but my umbrella will be staying in the boot for now.

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