I have lately toyed with the idea of retaining the services of a coffee man. I recall Mark Birley once explaining to me that the coffee man was one of the most delightful distractions of old-fashioned restaurants, when, in the days before the ubiquity of Italian (style) coffee, a man dressed in some vaguely Balkan or Eastern Mediterranean outfit complete with fez ran around the restaurant with his equipment, pouring people little cups of Turkish coffee. Maybe I have embellished the fancy-dress element, but you cannot imagine the difficulty that I have had in procuring the services of such an individual.
One reason for the failure of my search for a man to come round to my house to brew up one of those sludge-thick caramel-sweet drinks is that my professional life keeps interrupting. Take a recent morning: I had gone to bed resolved to sort out the coffee dilemma and awoke only to remember that I had a train to catch to Gloucester to visit Emma Willis’s shirt factory.
Emma is the sort of person who would be called posh if she appeared on telly — even her factory is in a grand late-18th-century mansion facing Gloucester Cathedral. In fact I cannot imagine why a reality TV show has not been made of her life. She would certainly be the star if there were ever plans to make the Real Housewives of Chelsea and the Cotswolds.
Moreover, I am sure she would leap — at least as far as her high-heeled boots permit — at the chance, not because of the personal glory but because she could publicise her next initiative, which is nothing less than the complete revitalisation of the shirtmaking industry in Britain and the establishment of a national sewing school.
Clearly her Jermyn Street shop, her factory and her extremely laudable work with injured servicemen returning from the Middle East do not take up enough of her time. Feeling restless, she has decided to train a nation of seamstresses and, I hope, seamsters (or whatever the male equivalent is called). She has already been to see Iain Duncan Smith to get his backing for a new vocational qualification and she has apportioned the upper floors of her factory as classrooms (or what today’s educators would probably call the learning zone).
However, what attracted my attention was the wool brocade dressing gown on display. As soon as my gaze alighted on it, it was as if the last 30 years had melted away, taking me back to wandering down the Cowley Road as an undergraduate in carmine kid Grecian slippers by Maxwell’s of Dover Street, a green paisley Tootal dressing gown, some indifferent pyjamas and from time to time a cravat.
This was a garment of Proustian recall and given the choice between remembering my past through the medium of a madeleine dunked in a hot drink or a beautiful wool dressing gown, I have no doubt which method of mental time travel I would choose.
Dressing-gown manufacture is an underexploited and underappreciated branch of the shirtmaker’s art; just making the tassels for the end of the belt, let alone all that piping and what have you, is a marvel. I too began to see the point of promoting the necessary skills in our island home. I felt so passionately about the subject that I immediately volunteered — on behalf of my wife — to assist in the establishment of a government-endorsed national sewing school.
I chose to volunteer my wife’s services partly because whereas I spent the majority of my tertiary education selecting which dressing gown to wear to the off-licence, she was actually receiving formal training in fashion production. But the main reason is that I am simply too idle.
Besides, I have important work ahead of me. If we train a generation of dressing-gown makers then it follows that we will also need people to wear them and I have selflessly presented myself for this task.
And once I have successfully done my bit to rightfully restore the dressing gown to the centre of British life, I will ask Emma to establish an academy to train a new generation of coffee men. I am sure she will accept because it would mean that she could open a factory to make the Balkan outfit that goes with such a profession.