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.


  1. The equivalent shop in Liverpool was called Army & Navy. The reason the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes wore all that camo gear (remember those mesh scarf things) and big coats etc. was because it was a “look” they could put together really cheaply.
    (I was surprised when I moved to London that the Army & Navy was something completely different down south, i.e. a once genteel, but now slightly down-at-heel, department store.)
    Sartorially I had - and still have - Mod tastes, but the only place you could get things like Fred Perrys and Ben Shermans was a “boutique” called - and I don’t think it was tongue-in-cheek - Sexy Rexy.
    I bought most of my stuff at a second-hand shop called 69a which did old ’60s clothes. Last time I was up there I was pleased to see it was still going - a more sophisticated operation and a lot pricier too.
    My daughter, like most teenage girls, is obsessed with fashion and goes “shopping“ every weekend. She can also afford to buy something most weekends too and it’s not as if we give her much pocket money (£20 a month). That’s “Primarni” as she calls it, for you. (And I’d rather not think about how they manage to sell stuff so cheaply, although I know I should.)
    Today’s high street makes the retail landscape people my age grew up in look like Cold War-era Bulgaria and I’m talking about the early ’80s, which isn’t that long ago.

  2. Presumably, the shortages in kit reported from the front lines means there's no longer any army surpluses left for army surplus stores to sell...

  3. Anonymous7:15 pm

    See also:


  4. Your comment about "Kowalski" intrigues me.

    My Parka, bought in the sixties from a surplus store, had a similar name stencilled in the back.

    I suspect now that somebody in the supply chain put these names in to excite us poor teenage innocents, or am I just being cynical?

  5. Anonymous5:42 pm

    Excellent link, AV. From the comments I picked up this (haven't checked it out myself but have no reason to doubt it):
    The staff from Laurance Corner - Deborah, Tina and Tony - have just opened a new army surplus store in Kentish Town: 121 Kentish Town Road, London, NW1 8PB, phone 0207 485 2442.

  6. Anonymous12:30 am

    Upper Kirkgate. Remember it well. German army shirts all the rage round '80/'81

  7. Anonymous5:57 am

    Did anyone else take the plunge and wear one of those rather fetching olive green rubberised capes? Beyond chic.


  8. I considered chaining myself to Laurence Corner in protest when I heard it was going to be shut down and lost forever. I have just remembered the cheap navy yachting shoe slip-ons and thick speckled fishermens socks from Millets too. I bought some great jodhpurs, a mac and a beret from LC c. 1980. Happy days. Flip was good too in the early early days.