One day in the autumn of 1996, I bought a five pound bus pass that, in those days, enabled one to take buses all over the north-west. Since Kendal had a shoe factory, it was cheaper to take the bus to Kendal to buy shoes than to buy shoes in Lancaster — about half the price in fact. I did this — I went to Kendal and bought a pair of sandals. Then I got on another bus and went to Keswick. Feeling a little chilly, I went into an army surplus store and bought a dark gray Swiss army surplus greatcoat for ten pounds. I hadn’t been planning an expedition to buy a coat, but I felt smug that I had bought sandals, a coat, and had a walk around Derwent Water all for less than the cost of buying sandals in Lancaster.
The sandals have long since disintegrated, but I’ve worn that coat every winter for the last twelve years. All the buttons have fallen off at different times and had to be reattached. The cuffs have torn. It’s horribly shabby, the way things are when you wear them in all weathers and every day for years. But it’s also long and wonderfully warm, and in its own odd way stylish — it has been described as Stalinish chic, but there you go.
The last two winters I’ve been thinking I ought to replace it. On occasions where I’ve wanted to look less scruffy I’ve worn my gorgeous microfibre leaf pattern coat that James Nicoll gave me. That’s warm, but it’s also short — my greatcoat comes down to my shins, and also buttons up to my chin. But every time I’ve thought about replacing the greatcoat, I’ve failed to find anything that’s as nice. Everything I have looked at fails to match it. So I’ve kept on wearing it as it’s got older and shabbier, because even with ragged cuffs and non-matching buttons (some usually hanging by a thread) it was just better than anything else.
Today, when I came back from going to the bank and shopping, my downstairs neighbours had decided to use loud machinery outside my study window to tear out the parking spot. I’m generally in favour of it being returned to grass, but I would have liked some warning. I put the shopping away and went straight out again, as it was too loud in here to hear myself think, never mind think about Brokedown Palace. I didn’t actually have anything sensible to do, but I went round in a loop to CocoRico to buy some Portugese barbecue for dinner.
On the way, I passed the army surplus shop on St Laurent. I went in. Now I do try not to replace everything with an identical thing, because left to my natural inclination this is what I would always do, and it’s easy to get obsessive about it and it isn’t healthy. I’m bad enough with DOS computers and denim bag. I hate buying clothes, and I always tend to buy the same kind of thing, while trying to vary it a bit. Z’s girlfriend A, when shopping with me, despaired that I wanted something different but I wouldn’t buy anything that wasn’t the same because I didn’t like it. Yeah. Problem. I know some people love buying clothes, and buying clothes that are different from their other clothes, but not me.
Anyway, I have looked in plenty of army surplus shops between 1996 and now, without seeing my greatcoat including the one by St Laurent metro — last winter they had some but only in very small sizes. But today they had one in my size — slightly different lining, and the buttons look more securely fixed, otherwise identical. I bought it. I didn’t hesitate. My coat. My coat, new, renewed, reborn, risen again hosannah.
The usual trouble with buying something excellent and long-lasting is that when it does eventually need replacing the company who made it have gone out of business because they couldn’t keep going all that time without my support. I’ve been seeing this recently with kitchen things — a lot of my better kitchen things I bought in 1987 when I bought my house in Lancaster, and they’re wearing out. But the Swiss Army, having designed what’s close to being the platonically ideal greatcoat, haven’t changed it, and are still selling off their surplus. It cost $65, which is more then ten pounds but still incredibly cheap for a new Montreal-winter-quality coat.
In another ten years or so I’ll buy another, unless we’ve invented nanotech clothes by then, in which case I’ll buy Ellen Mae’s Swiss army coat from The Cassini Division, the one that changes into a spacesuit or a balldress. But when I go out in winter, this is what I’ll have it set for.