Long Dark Overcoats

During my first three winters in Edinburgh I wore a dark green raincoat I’ve had since the mid-’90s: a Mountain Co-Op design made of Gore-Tex, as seen on Canadians and backpackers everywhere. It’s waterproof, windproof, and light enough to go over anything; basically all you need in the British countryside. I seem to be wearing it in every travel photo of the past eight years.

The problem is it makes me look like a tourist. Only tourists wear colourful clothes in Edinburgh outside spring and summer; everyone else (of the male variety) wears one of the following:

  1. Long black overcoats;
  2. Denim jackets of a kind not seen outside Scotland since 1982;
  3. No coat. And the flimsier the shirt and colder the temperature, the better.

If B or C, you’re a true local, born and raised in a flat full of screaming bairns hopped up on Tunnock’s Tea-Cakes. If A, you’re probably English.

I knew I had to replace my coat. For one thing, it only went down to my waist, and on bitter winter evenings at Tollcross it felt like my arse was developing permafrost. But the alternatives were offputting. I never took to those denim jackets the first time around, and the no-coat option might make you hard, but not in a good way; some guy froze to death this winter walking home from a party.

Option A was clearly the most tempting, but I feared the price-tag. The last time I looked at long overcoats, not long after I’d left home, I instinctively chose the one that cost A$1200, or about A$1150 more than my budget. Nowadays, what with inflation and the UK pound-for-dollar effect, I’d be looking at a second mortgage.

But their lure was strong. I’ve always fancied the long, dark coat: the cowboy-in-winter look, the bushranger look, the Keanu in The Matrix look. Actually, what I’d most like is a cloak, but I was born a hundred years too late for that. (With a top hat, while I’m at it. Those Victorian six-footers had the right idea: if you’re going to hit your head all the time anyway, you might as well do it in style.)

Yet what I’ve ended up with, again and again, are variations on the parka, the British names for which are bywords of naffness: the “anorak”, evoking trainspotters and hopeless oiks, or the “cagoul”, which sounds like something that k-nights once k-illed.

It was time for a change. Who cares if the Scots think I’m English; half of them probably do anyway, and as soon as I open my mouth they know I ain’t Sco’ish. So, last December on a trip to Glasgow, I went coat shopping.

The first place I looked—the very first place—I discovered that the long black overcoat is one of those few UK items that buck the pound-for-dollar trend and actually represent good value. Far from being the price of a new computer, they’re barely more than a new pair of Levis (which don’t represent good value here at all). I could have been wearing one for the past three and a half years! Why didn’t anyone tell me? (As Marvin would say, “You didn’t ask.”)

So I found one that was a good fit, wandered around comparison-shopping for another hour, went back to the first place I tried, and walked out with change for a hundred quid and a shiny new overcoat. Or rather, felt-y: no more waterproof shininess for me. By now I’d cracked the final secret that had stopped me from taking the overcoat path before: it doesn’t actually rain in Edinburgh. Not very often, anyway, and when it does, not very heavily. It’s cold and damp and pretty windy, but Edinburgh doesn’t get lochsful of water dumped through a leaky sieve onto it every day the way Glasgow and the west coast do. You can safely wear an unwaterproof coat.

I safely wore mine all through winter, feeling better-dressed for the weather than ever before. Its felted cloth was just the right weight to protect against the cold and wind, and thick enough to resist Edinburgh’s fierce speckly showers. Its extra length protected the thighs and all frost-prone areas above. And its lustrous blackness let me blend into the night—and the crowd—like a black cat in a bean bag. At last I could feel part of the place.


I wore it back to Glasgow in April, when J. and I visited the Home Office, wondering whether we’d be part of the place for much longer.

The thrill of the approaching visa deadline is comparable to the approaching end-of-year exam, and even those can’t really compete; you can always take them again. The frisson is all the more when you can only apply for an extension a month before your current visa expires, potentially leaving you a few weeks to sell the flat, ship everything out, and leave. It helps, as J. found, to have functionaries at your place of employment reminding you—every day, if possible (after all, sending emails is so easy!)—of your visa’s impending expiry; who knows, you might have forgotten the date that’s been circled in red on the calendar of your mind’s eye for the past four months going on years. Being in an unstable employment situation ever since your centre’s funding ended last year is another adrenalin boost when it comes to filling in the relevant section of an FLR-0. And to cap it all off, why not arrange for all this to happen during a general election in which both major parties are talking tough about immigration, illegal and otherwise.

Yes, there’s nothing to make you feel more wanted than learning that you can’t apply for indefinite leave to remain yet, because your visa expires ten weeks before the fourth anniversary of your entry into the UK, so you’ll have to get your ancestry visa extended to cover the gap. And guess what: the in-person application fees doubled two weeks ago, so if you apply by post you’ll be lucky to see your passports by July. Better pay the five hundred quid, then. Got all your bank statements/pay slips/ancestors’ birth certificates/passport photos/anything else that we can think of that lays your pitiful lives bare before us? Right you are.

At least we didn’t have to do it in London. When my brother and sister-in-law went through this a few years ago they were told to turn up at 6 a.m., and when they did the queue was a hundred long.

No, we headed over to Glasgow on a sunny morning and had an early lunch before making our way to Govan on the south side. The tube workers were on strike, so we caught a bus out there, past run-down pubs with signs saying THE AN EL. The street we were after had broken-windowed terraces along one side and corrugated-iron warehouses on the other; sure enough, the Home Office was in one of those.

After leaving our cameras with security and passing through a metal-detector, we joined the one other person in the waiting room: L-shaped and fluorescent-lit with metal seats bolted to the lino floor, a row of shuttered enquiry windows, and school chairs chained down in front of them (to stop anyone from hurling them through the glass, I guess). The staff were all at lunch, but got back twenty minutes later, then made us wait some more. About a dozen people were waiting by now, but we had the first ticket.

Half an hour after our appointment slot started, we were called up. The guy at the window looked through our documents, asked us a few questions about our mortgage and work situation, and then said to wait for the cashier.

We waited. We were called up. We paid our £500 (on Visa, naturally). We waited again. We were called to another window. We handed in our passports to have the visas put into them. We waited 45 minutes. We collected our passports. We left.

During our wait we overheard a Middle-Eastern engineer sorting out his work visa at the first window (no privacy here), with his 3-year-old son by his side and wife and baby sitting back on the benches. The guy at the window asked what the man’s wife did. “Stay at home Mum, is she?” No, he replied, she’s a doctor, doing her equivalency exams.

The people behind the counter seemed perfectly reasonable and polite, yet the system seems devised to create an air of bureaucratic menace, as if anyone might be rejected for the slightest of reasons. Everyone in the room appeared to be a professional of some kind—at £500 a throw, you’d want to be—yet we were all keeping our heads down to make sure we’d get our visas extended.

So now we have a new date for the mental calendar, in 2008, but we’ll apply for indefinite leave to remain in July anyway. You never know when the rules might change in this political climate, and being permanent residents should make the little things that much easier. Like applying for work; and, maybe, for British citizenship in a year’s time. Ever since Australians have been able to take on dual citizenship, the thought has been there... especially because, if it weren’t for the rules surrounding British Overseas Citizens (as my dad was in the ’60s), I’d already be one. I’d feel a bit strange about becoming Scottish, given that I came here as an adult with a different national identity, but the UK is a state more than a nation, and the EU is less national than that. I already feel part of them, and they’re already part of me, so having that extra passport would be good. Like having an extra coat.

5 May 2005 · Journal

superb stuff, rory :) really enjoyed this one!

(did you really not get a coat before coz you thought it would be so pricey? then again i do remember in oz, coats were always such a bloody fortune. which is crazy considering you'd need it for about 0.2 days a year!)

Added by shauna on 6 May 2005.

Well, it was partly inertia I suppose, but yeah, the main reason was that I assumed they would cost at least a few hundred pounds, and there always seemed to be something more worth spending that much on. Plus my other one is fine, basically—it just makes me look like I’m on holiday. (Mind you, Franz Ferdinand do say that it’s always better on holiday...)

Added by Rory on 6 May 2005.

Ah, that explains the apparent fondness for your anorak ;-) Look forward to seeing you sometime soon in the new overcoat - though if you come through to Glasgow it might be too warm. Given all the sunshine we've been having, I'm guessing the lochs must be getting very full.

Take heart re the visa, at least you have it. A friend of mine has been waiting more than five years to have hers processed, which is just despicable.

Added by Rachel on 11 May 2005.