It was 1996 and a friend of mine had just died. Looking back, I now know that if he had survived a bit longer he would have benefited from the antiretrovirals and combination therapies that were to revolutionise the treatment of AIDS but he just didn’t make it. He was 42, it was awful and my sister and I were his executors. The aftermath of his death was fraught for all the usual reasons and we’d reached the point of going through everything and deciding what to throw out and what to keep and who got what etc. I was going through his papers and came across a catalogue which I can best describe as being for rugged Americans. His main interest was leather but this catalogue was filled with butch men wearing lumberjack shirts and the kind of heavy boots which would easily resist a dropped chain saw. It was all very John Wayne and also from another angle very YMCA. In this catalogue, LL Bean I think it was, there was also a two-layer, red union suit. If you don’t know what that is feast your eyes below. A bit wrinkly but you get the general idea. Incidentally my partner suggested I might like to pose in it. Think what you’ve been spared.
At the time I was living in a Housing Association house in Finsbury Park in North London. The house was wonderful but it was also bitterly cold; ice on the inside of the windows cold. So cold that the house cat (like the inhabitants, relatively feral) would crawl into bed with me at night and sleep against my kidneys. This union suit, I thought, would be the perfect item to ward off the cold. This was the very early days of the internet and so I must have filled out the sales slip and posted it off with my credit card details. And waited.
At some point in the middle of the summer, a postman turned up with my parcel demanding an eye watering amount of tax. It was about a quarter of the value of the clothes. I paid somewhat bitterly and tore open the parcel and there was my union suit. Now I just had to wait for cold weather. Eventually, a suitably cold day arrived and I put it on. Hurrah, I thought, the cold will not defeat me. Out I went in it and down into the underground, Piccadilly line as I remember it, quite a toasty line. And then on a very crowded, rush hour train I almost fainted from heat exhaustion. The trouble with a union suit I had discovered was its unity. It is impossible to get out of a union suit on a crowded tube and it is impossible to get any air into it. After that I was a bit wary. I remember once falling asleep wearing it when the electric blanket was on. The cat really approved of that episode. She became so soporific she couldn’t be bothered to swipe and bite when I scratched the top of her head. I had to drink about 2 liters of water to recover.
I still have it and feel that my union suit might be about to come into its own, what with the increase in energy prices and everything. But I now know that I can’t wear it out when I will encounter a range of warmer temperatures. Even though there are now all kinds of more sophisticated warm clothing (UNIQLO and their Heattech range for example) I still have a sneaking affection for it. I could have given it to charity or a passing cowboy but I haven’t.
Actually I blame my mother. She loved a good western and had a penchant for Zane Grey. But really what was I thinking of, these things are designed for people chopping down trees in snowy Montana or Maine (the home of LL Bean) not hopping on and off the tube in London. Who did I think I was? John Wayne’s sister?
P.S. Incidentally, if you’re interested LL Bean still sell them and I can vouch both for their warmth and their durability!