Wednesday, 10 February 2016


There's nothing like a change in one's ordinary routine to highlight issues one might have with the stuff one wears or carries around. Take bags. When I trekked across Brighton to Hove two days ago I wore my cross-body orange Florence bag. By the time I'd reached home again that afternoon, I was badly missing my red Karen Millen handbag. Somehow, all against expectations, the Florence bag hadn't delivered. I couldn't put my finger on it, couldn't quite see why it might be so, but I had missed my red Karen Millen bag and would have been happier with it at the Court. Somehow it would have represented me better, not only as the keen juror Lucy Melford, but as a keen human being. I even suspect that I would have been luckier in getting chosen for that trial, had I taken the red bag instead of the orange one. My latent forensic skills and cool reasoning abilities could then have been put to the test! That's my gut feeling.

Long-term readers who pay close attention to these chronicles will know that I have bought many bags over the years, and have discarded nearly all of them, but did use four in particular - and in 2016 remain true to three.

One is the glamorous and super-expensive Prada bag I bought in London from the Prada shop in Sloane Street for £910, way back in March 2009. This is in luxurious soft black leather, with pukka heavy brass rings, zips, studs and buckles. The straps make it easy (and stylish) to carry (or should I really say 'wear'?) in any of the classic handbag ways, including on the shoulder. It catches the eye, and when new elicited gratifying envy from ordinary women, and was an instant conversation-starter. Here it is when still pristine:

It still looks much the same. I used it a lot to begin with, but soon decided that it should be kept for posh or important occasions only. It was just too nice to let ordinary wear and tear take their toll. I would never pay so much for a bag now. But back in 2009, with my world being turned upside down, a bag like this made a statement not just to the world but to myself, repairing and reinforcing my sense of self-worth. If you like, it was a psychological crutch in an period of change and uncertainty.

It did its job. It isn't needed now, and hasn't been for a long time past, but I will never discard it.

That said, it isn't the ideal bag by any means. The Prada bag is essentially a big one-compartment sack, so that anything placed within instantly shifts around and will have to be searched for if wanted. Only big items like umbrellas and shoes can be quickly located within its cavernous interior. In that respect, it's moderately thief-proof - meaning that no street thief can slip their fingers inside and expect to locate purse or phone instantly. They'll have to fish around - like I have to - and that's a time-wasting no-no for a thief. But of course the entire bag can be snatched from my arm or shoulder, the thief assuming that somewhere inside must be the valuable items sought. It can also be deftly removed if I'm seated at a restaurant table, should I be silly enough to hang it from the back of my seat. But even if I keep the Prada bag within my field of vision, I won't necessarily notice its loss straight away. A black bags tends to merge into the under-table shadows, and its absence might not be noticed immediately. A black bag is therefore easy to steal, and easy to walk boldly away with - black being the most common colour of handbag.

So on the whole, I feel that it's taking a risk to carry my Prada bag. And that's one reason why I now reserve it for weddings, funerals and civic receptions. I might not even trot it out for a first date.

Bag number two - worn out and gone now - was a black Radley, bought at House of Fraser in Chichester in August 2009 for £188. It had a cross-body strap, a single main compartment, a fold-over crinkly-leather flap with a magnetic fastening, a big open rear pocket (very useful indeed), and was slightly embroidered with flower shapes. Here it is in early 2012, by then looking a bit worse for wear:

Admittedly, I'd used it a lot, but it hadn't aged well. It had become shabby. The main problem was the leather, which had faded badly and taken some scuffs. I'd been on the lookout for a replacement for some time. Not just for something more presentable. This bag had become too small for my needs, and it was getting difficult to cram in everything. A cardigan? An umbrella? A hair brush? Forget fitting those inside. Still, I ended up getting nearly four years' use out that Radley bag, so difficult was it to find a completely suitable substitute.

But I did in the end. I already had it. The third bag to win my heart was the bag I bought while cruising with Dad in April 2009, this time from a shop in Florence called Simone. It cost a much more reasonable €115 (say £100). I bought it as a present for M---, but she told me that she couldn't accept it, and this rejected gift languished in a drawer at home until the summer of 2013, when I decided that I would put it to good use as my own bag. Originally it was a classic shoulder bag in beautiful but rather orangey leather:

It looked good, and its two-compartment structure allowed a degree of organisation for the contents that made it practical for everyday use. But I couldn't get on with the shoulder strap - the bag kept on slipping off my shoulder, and there was no other way to carry it. So, wanting to make the bag a success, I decided to take off the existing shoulder strap and make a cross-body strap out of a long man's leather belt, brass fittings cannibalised from an unused travelling bag up in the attic, and some buttons sewn in to disguise the belt buckle holes:

The brass fittings didn't last long, and within months I had dismembered the original shoulder strap for its better-quality brassware. This time it was a perfect job:

Perfect - so far as home-made efforts go, that is! It did however suggest the possibility of one day actually designing and making my own leather bag. I'd need to acquire specialist tools and a heavy-duty old sewing machine for that, but it was a creative idea not to be forgotten.

This orange Florence bag remains in use for all occasions when I want both hands free. Such as on a beach, or on country walks. It's good around town too, especially in the winter. It can carry a lot, although it's a mistake to overload it, as that can induce shoulder and back discomfort, even if I remember to swap it from one side to the other. As for security, the cross-body strap makes snatching it very difficult indeed, and the bag can be zipped up. So out on the street it's much more secure from the light-fingered than the Prada bag would be. With a lot of use since 2013, the leather has weathered and matured. It looks like a well-loved bag.

But it isn't - and never was - impressively stylish and arresting. And lacking an everyday bag like that was why I bought the red Karen Millen bag from their Brighton shop in June 2015 for £145. That was a sale price; originally it was £230. £145 was at the upper end of what I'd be prepared to pay in 2015. But the bag was very appealing to me - strikingly red, with great eye-impact; beautifully made, almost to Prada standards; clean lines; no bling; and three main compartments (allowing even better organisation of the contents). It looked great, and was clearly very practical. Here was a wonderful bag for any season, but especially for the summer, that would go with most outfits. Not perhaps a bag for a funeral, but then I had something in hand for that!

The red Karen Millen bag also required a little surgery, to reinforce the straps where they were sewn on. I made holes, and screwed in some polished chrome studs that actually added a little differentiation between this bag and any others like it out there:

You hardly notice the studs, but they have subtly customised the bag in a way I like. Any form of customisation, if done with care, tends to make a possession seem more personal, and this has certainly helped to turn this bag into my firm favourite. But the main thing about it is that it's so definitely red, so much so that if I am seen around for any length of time I become known as 'the lady with the red bag', as happened during the nine-day Appledore Book Festival in North Devon last year. It will thus be necessary to carry the bag at this year's Festival also, if I want to jog the memories of people who are not friends but saw me about last year, and might want to say hello.

It's funny, but for years I considered red bags to be a bit tarty, a bit attention-grabbing, and definitely not for me. But now I've changed my mind. I think they suggest life and vitality, and a zest for living. At the very least, they add an intense colour focus to any photo, indoors or outside!

This Karen Millen bag has strong magnetic closure, so it isn't too easy to open up a compartment and slip fingers inside - and yet the bag will snap shut very satisfyingly. Potential thieves will surely have a challenge deciding which of the three compartments is worth trying for purse and phone (I'm giving away no clues), and will probably have to resort to sneaking or snatching the entire bag as their best option. But I shall instantly notice its loss - red being such an eye-catching colour, even on the edge of one's field of vision - and I'm thinking no thief will relish running off with anything so indiscreet in their arms. It is anyway a bag I can perch on my lap when eating, if I've any doubts about where to park it safely.

It's surprisingly good to carry around, too. You can use all the positions, although 'on the shoulder' is only easy if wearing no coat or jacket. Nevertheless, with this bag it becomes habitual to change arms or hands or shoulders frequently, spreading the load and sparing neck and back and elbow from any strain. I don't think I'd necessarily want to take it on a long day's tramp around London - the orange Florence bag would probably be my first choice for that - but if there were to be regular pit stops for refreshment, then I just might. It's my usual choice for Brighton, anyway.

One thing all three bags still in use in 2016 have in common is that they can swallow quite a lot of cargo. All will accommodate an umbrella, spare shoes and a cardigan, and if necessary a water bottle (or bottle of wine) too. This is in addition to my usual load of purse, phone, camera and cosmetic bag, to name just the chief items. Some people port about tiny little bags, and I really can't see what use they are. So much is needed for ordinary living - surely you need a bag large enough to bring it all along? I mean, we are not men, who seem to get away with keys, phone, a credit card, and a few coins. Men have serious pockets, of course.

Some women scorn any bag whatever. How do they manage? How do they cope? What do they use? Pockets, like a man? Their bra? Or do they rely on someone else, a willing companion, to carry their bare minimum for them? It seems odd.

But if you study the problem closely, it's clear that you could get away with carrying just a phone, a hairbrush or comb, and your favourite shade of lipstick. Because you can pay with a phone (therefore no purse required), and generally control all kinds of electronics, including (in principle) the gadgetry that lets you into your home and car (so no keys required). Jeans pocket stuff.

Ah, but I'm too chubby for jeans...

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