On the corner of Piccadilly and Air Street, in the centre of London’s West End, is a gents’ and ladies’ town and country outfitters called Cording’s. An ‘outfitters’ is a fancy name for a fancy and often old-fashioned clothing shop.
In the Air Street window is a coat. Just as Sherlock Holmes referred to Irene Adler as the woman, so my father referred to this coat as the coat. It is an elegant masterpiece of the tailor’s craft.
For years, my father walked past Cording’s on his way to and from work. Each time he passed by, he would stop and look at the coat. Some time prior to 1971, the coat cost 500 guineas, which was £525, which was best part of $2,000 at one point. My Dad was greatly enamoured of the coat.
In the late 1980s, he and I were walking along Piccadilly and we stopped to look at the coat. He told me the history of his looking at the coat, which by then probably cost at least 1,000 guineas. (The guinea was abandoned when British currency was decimalised in 1971.)
By that time, I was earning a decent living, so I offered to buy my father the coat. I insisted, in fact. “You’ve missed the point,” he said. “I don’t want the coat. I want to look at the coat.”
My parents lived through the war, and the 10 years of rationing that followed. Unlike today, when people want things now and don’t care who they have to kick to get them, people in the early 1950s were keenly grateful for anything that came their way and cherished what they had. That’s a generalisation, but many people from that era would agree with me. It was not an age when anything you wanted was a ‘human right’ and everyone else just a supporting actor clogging up your movie.
The coat, my Dad explained, was aspirational. Being aware that the coat existed , and could be bought if one were sufficiently confident of the economic future, reassured him, after years of not knowing whether the next day would be his last. The coat was the gold standard. My father was aware that he did not qualify for the gold standard of things, merely the gold standard of human behaviour.
I was in London a couple of weeks ago, and my peregrinations took me past Cording’s. I stopped to look in the window, almost involuntarily. In the window was a coat. It might very well have been the coat. It certainly looked a lot like the one I remembered. It brought back a flood of memories and an awareness of how olderhood changes a person. I had never really understood why my Dad didn’t just buy the coat. He could afford it, and after all, it was just a coat.
But now I understand. Dad would never have spent so much money on a coat or anything else (other than a house), because he wanted to leave as much as possible to his children. His later years were an exercise in having only what he needed.
He left my brother and me enough to buy homes. And all because he didn’t buy the coat.