Mary Poppins used one to fly but for most people they are merely ‘portable roofs’. Have brollies lost their magic?
Among the Japanese yokai, or monstrous spirits, one of the most prominent forms of apparition is the kasa-obake: the umbrella ghost. It is always an old umbrella, well used and long ignored, with holes in the oiled paper or a broken rib. One moment it is quietly rolled in the hallway stand, the next it is leaping and leering, its wooden handle now taking the shape of a human leg. From among the folds a single eye gleams with sinister life. An 18th-century haiku by Yosa Buson catches the mood: “Oh, the winter rain / On a moonlit night / When the shadow of an old umbrella shudders.” The Japanese paper parasol is more often a protection against sun than rain, but in both guises it can be beautiful, symbolically powerful and malign. It casts a clement shadow, but shades can also be spectres.
I must say, I’ve never felt haunted by an umbrella, but I wouldn’t open one indoors, and Marion Rankine’s tour through umbrella culture suggests how widely this apparently simple accessory has been regarded with reverence, superstition and fascination. If you’re surprised by the thought of a whole book on the subject, be assured that there is already a substantial reading list. The story of ancient ceremonial usage, of sky gods, of Thomas Coryat’s return to England with news of the Italian sunshade – all this has been much retold and refined since William Sangster, proprietor of Sangster’s Umbrellas in London, published his cheerfully triumphal survey Umbrellas and Their History in 1855. The histories on the bookshelf are joined by social analyses, such as Dickens’s inquiry into the conditions of umbrella manufacture, and contemporary studies of sartorial sign language. And this is before we open the floodgates to painting, poetry and fiction.