I have a horror of shopping malls.
It was not always this way. When I was young, I felt the thrill of the notes and coins in my pocket. I do not know when my Inner Bag Lady first stepped out to take the air.
She came by stealth. She pointed to the rest of life and said simply (as bag ladies so often have the knack of doing): “Life is somewhere else.”
And I looked around, and away from the glassy glamour of the new, and clapped a hand to my forehead. She was right. But like most bag ladies she walks to the beat of her own drum. Most people are content to have their thoughts drowned out by the white noise of acquisition in the shopping mall.
I have a lot of time for a Bag Man I learnt about once.
Thumbing through his notebooks one can find a reference by Nathaniel Hawthorne to our Henry David. “[Thoreau] is as ugly as sin,” he writes; “long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic, though courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty.”
It is said Thoreau wore a neck beard. Shudder. He said the women loved it: but Ralph Waldo Emerson records that Louisa May Alcott told him it “will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man’s virtue in perpetuity.”
Thoreau went to the woods in the 1840s to see what they could teach him, and they and he together have bequeathed us words we will never forget.
My favourite bag man has words to say on spending money on appearance: “I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes,” he cautions,”and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit?”
He grew not only to love natural history but to hunger for tales from around the world of its natural wonders: he loved Charles Darwin’s Travels Of The Beagle’.
I wonder what he would have thought of the style of Phileas Fogg, the fiction adventurer coined by Jules Verne, writing in the same quarter century as Thoreau?
Verne is a literary bag man: he drops every word he does not need, and carries only what is absolutely necessary to convey the precise colours and shades his narrative requires.
Phileas Fogg is incredibly rich, but no-one knows how: he is spare, living in a comfortable house in Saville Row with just one servant; he likes his club, and routine, and we are led to believe he is a slave to the latter: right up until the moment he accepts a wager to go round the world in 80 days, flat.
He has a new servant: Passepartout. It means ‘skeleton-key’. Those keys which can finesse and gain access to any lock.
Passepartout, a Parisian with several trades – travelling singer, circus rider, tightrope walker- has just accepted a position as Fogg’s valet because it will mean a quiet life. For when has Fogg ever done anything but go to his club and come back again?
Yet Fogg returns with the news that they must set out immediately.
“No trunks necessary. Only a carpet-bag. In it two woollen shirts and three pairs of stockings. The same for you. we will purchase on the way. You may bring down my macintosh and travelling cloak, also stout shoes, although we shall walk but little or not at all. Go.”
Their adventure is peerless. It changes them both forever.And a few, spare new clothes were needed.
He does not eschew the new: but he specifies that life requires only what is really needed. More will weigh the adventurer down.
I wonder how Thoreau would have viewed Fogg, had the flesh-and-blood met the fictional?
I suspect Thoreau might have respected the man who wore Fogg’s clothes.
Even the new ones.
Written in response to an ingenious theme by Side View: Enterprises That Require New Clothes, which you can find here.