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Saturday, March 29, 2008

When I was dressed by HM Government

Returning from dropping my son off at Victoria at an unearthly hour of this morning I was amazed to see that Laurence Corner has closed. This shop near that corner of the Euston Road that always seems to vie for the title Windiest Place In London has been there ever since I've lived in London. For those who didn't know it it dealt in what used to be called "army surplus" and eventually grew into an assortment of items that were roughly khaki in colour and looked as if they could be some use on a camp site.

I may have bought the odd thing at Laurence Corner but the 60s were the true army surplus era for me and I did most of my surplus shopping in Yorkshire. When I was sixteen fashionable clothes weren't really available in the shops and if they had been I wouldn't have had the budget to buy them. It didn't matter. The army surplus store was where the grammar school boy with boho pretensions would shop by choice in those days. It was here that we bought double-breasted Merchant Navy greatcoats, strangely frocked black oilskin coats such as a trawlerman might wear to go on deck in the North Sea, ex-Korean War fatigue jackets which, if you were lucky, would have a name like "Kowalski" printed on the pocket, canvas shoulder bags in which field medics used to carry morphine, voluminous, itchy off-white polo necks that were standard issue on the Arctic convoys, pale fawn collarless military "grandad" vests, webbing belts with buckles that were impossible to lock and berets such as Robert Lindsay subsequently sported in "Citizen Smith".

Our fathers, who had been given these exact items of clothing to wear free of charge when they were conscripted into the army in 1940, would shake their heads and wonder why we chose to dress this way and yet in every other respect showed no military inclinations whatsoever. They would be even more amazed if they could see us now, eagerly devouring history books about wars they fought in in search of the very same authenticity by proxy that the accident of our birth has made us lucky enough to avoid.